The fact that five former US Treasury secretaries representing every administration from that of John Kennedy to Jimmy Carter could reach agreement on a budget plan underscores the sorry record of Congress and the Reagan administration in yet failing to reach a similar compromise. Clearly there is now a widespread perception among economists that the inability to hammer together a budget that reduces upcoming deficits is the primary factor in keeping interest rates at current high levels. And it is those high interest rates that are seen as spurring layoffs and bankruptcies and delaying recovery.
To blame the current fiscal impasse on politics and conflicting ideological considerations - as both the White House and congressional leaders have done - is to miss the larger point. That is that, with the US still in a recession, unemployment now at 9.4 percent, and interest rates remaining high, the national interest urgently demands fashioning a compromise budget that lowers deficits. Impossible task? Consider the five former top Treasury officials who urged that defense and nondefense spending be slashed, taxes raised, and all cost-of-living allowances be frozen for one year. Douglas Dillon (Treasury chief under John Kennedy); Henry Fowler (Lyndon Johnson); John Connally (Richard Nixon); William Simon (Gerald Ford); and Michael Blumenthal (Jimmy Carter) represent a diversity of political and economic views, yet somehow managed to find common ground for genuine accommodation.
The ex-Treasury officials would hold the 1983 deficit to under $100 billion. By contrast, the Senate budget resolution passed late last week carries a $116 billion deficit. The Senate, it might also be noted, ignored the possibility of substantial savings through changes in entitlement programs. Meantime, the House this week is slogging through examination of some eight (at last count) budget plans.
The former Treasury officials have clearly spoken the concerns of many Americans in arguing that, without a responsible budget, upcoming deficits - and federal borrowing to offset those deficits - ''would devour virtually every penny of household savings and would divert capital from productive investment at a record rate.''
They were also on target in asserting that ''it is now time for a wider sharing of burdens - for focusing fiscal reform on the major spending programs which confer benefits on middle- and upper-income groups.'' That means directly tackling politically sensitive entitlement programs.
Messrs. Dillon, Fowler, Connally, Simon, and Blumenthal have performed a genuine public service in showing that reasonable budget compromise is possible. Is Washington listening?