The federal budget now emerging from Congress is best known as the first one in 12 red ink-stained years that lawmakers hope can be balanced. What has attracted less attention is that it also marks perhaps the first substantial slowing in 25 years of headlong growth in federal "social" programs.
After the relatively parsimonious years of the Eisenhower presidency, outlays for income security, education, job training, social services, health, and veterans benefits ballooned under the Kennedy "New Frontier," the Johnson "Great Society," and successive presidents and Congresses. Outlays for social programs were $14.5 billion in 1955; the figure is $296.9 billion in the current fiscal year.
These social programs will continue to grow next fiscal year under the budget passed in different versions by both houses of Congress and now being reconciled. But the growth pace will be so slackened as to suggest that the days of almost unbounded expansion are over -- at least for the foreseeable future.
Under pressure from an inflation-racked and more fiscally conservative electorate to balance the federal budget, President Carter and Congress are doing so chiefly by eliminating, cutting back, tightening up, and postponing domestic spending programs.
The Senate alone -- cutting deeper into social outlays than did the House of Representatives -- slashed $13 billion from the amount these programs would have cost if continued at current levels with adjustments only for inflation and caseload charges.
The scaling back of domestic programs draws charges of being "callous" and "cruel." But it is more often defended as unpleasant but necessary belt-tightening.
"The federal government can never meet all national needs at one time," explains the Senate Budget Committee in justifying its action, "and especially not when the government is seen by the majority of its people to be profligate and unwilling to restrain itself."
Here is where the budgetary ax is falling in Washington's once-thriving thicket of social programs:
* Revenue sharing. State governments appear likely to lose some or all of the millions of federal dollars handed them without restriction to spend on a wide variety of public services.
The House has voted to scrap the entire states' share, saving $1.7 billion. The Senate would trim it to $700 million. Localities, however, would continue to receive revenue-sharing aid.
* Food stamps. This program to supplement the food-buying power of the nation's needy is put on shorter rations by both houses of Congress. The House of Representatives pares $520 million by such devices as tightening eligibility requirements and adjusting for inflation once instead of twice a year. The Senate slashes three times as much -- $1.4 billion, or over 1/10th of the nearly
* Job-training and job-creating programs. Activities such as those spawned by the seven-year-old Comprehensive Education and Training Act (CETA) are to be sharply curtailed.
The House would scratch 50,000 public-service jobs, scrap welfare job-demonstration projects, and shrink the Young Adult Conservation Corps. Savings: $300 million.
The Senate would slice $1.1 billion out of the $30 billion-a-year CETA program, including all 200,000 public-service jobs projected for the coming recessionary year.
* Pensions of federal retirees. The simple step of cranking cost-of-living raises into the benefits of retired federal military and civilian employees annually rather than semiannually would recoup a hefty $1.1 billion. Both the House and Senate have agreed to do so.
* Local building projects. Federally aided public works and economic development programs in depressed areas loom as prime victims of the budget balancing. A broad range of projects would be abandoned, curtailed, and deferred -- $200 million worth of them by the House, $300 million by the Senate.
* Student grants and loans. The ceiling on federal grants to college students would be lowered by $100 (to $1,800), and loans would be targeted more narrowly toward the neediest students. Savings tallied by both houses: $200 million.
The Senate doesn't stop there, but snips away $700 million by additional cost cutting in sundry other federal education programs.
* Park acquisition. Government purchases of park land are likely to be slowed markedly, if not halted altogether. Federal acquisition and grants to help states buy land would be reduced by the House by about one-third ($150 million below this year's budget of $451 million). Nearly all federal purchases and all state grants would be deferred by the Senate's even deeper cut of $200 million.
* Local crime-fighting aid. The 12-year-old program of grants from the Department of Justice's Law Enforcement Assistance Administration to help states and localities improve their police and courts is imperiled. The program would be junked outright by the House to recover $100 million. It would be carried on by the Senate, but grants for the coming year would be discontinued.
* Welfare money. Computing of cash benefits in various federal public-assistance programs may be tightened. Recipients would be required to report their incomes more frequently, and their benefits would be based on past rather than anticipated income. The House incorporates this $221 million savings plan in its budget, but not the Senate.
* School lunches and milk. These and other child-nutrition programs face trimming by adjusting of the reimbursement rates to schools and other institutions yearly instead of every six months. Senators and representatives reckon this technical change would spare taxpayers $75 million.
* Youth Conservation Corps. This program, launched a decade ago in the heyday of the environmental movement to provide summer jobs for young people working on federal lands, appears consigned to oblivion. Both versions of the congressional budget abolish it. Taxpayers will save $55 million, but the 33, 000 youths due to be hired next summer must look elsewhere for work.
* Highway construction. Some projected new federal highway mileage may be another budget casualty. The Senate shaves $100 million worth of aid to noncritical highways from the current year's sum of $8.3 billion. The House, however, chips in a modest increase of $200 million.
In addition to this list of cuts in existing programs, one or both houses of Congress would postpone the start-up of some newly authorized domestic programs and initiatives.
Included are a welfare reform plan, a child health program, a job-training project for disadvantaged youths, expansions of medicare and medicaid services, and aid to localities damaged by energy development projects.