Budget fencing; The best way to pay America's bills?

The US Senate, which has rejected two budgets, goes back to its calculators this week to begin a third effort. But difficulties over adopting a fiscal 1984 tax and spending plan once again raises the issue of whether the whole budget process is worth the fuss.

The White House, which used the budget procedure masterfully for two years to make historic cuts in spending and taxes, appears to have lost interest now that that same budget process blocks its way.

The deficits, which have gone out of the stratosphere during the Reagan administration, are printed in the budget for all to see. The nearly $200 billion in red ink for a single year has incited calls for trimming defense and raising revenues. Since the White House opposes both actions, it is showing little interest in this year's budget.

White House spokesman Larry Speakes last week went as far as saying that the President would prefer having no budget at all to raising taxes. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger indicated he wanted to scrap the budget process altogether after he lost his bid for a 10 percent after-inflation defense spending hike.

The situation is a bit like the ''kid who's losing the game and so he takes the marbles home,'' observes Stanley E. Collender, a consultant on the federal budget and former congressional budget staffer.

But Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee defended the budget process, even as he sustained perhaps his biggest defeat since becoming majority leader in 1981.

''I'm determined to see that we get a budget resolution,'' he said shortly after his own budget proposal was voted down by the Democrats with the help of seven moderate Republicans. ''I do not share the sentiments expressed by an official of the White House,'' he said, referring to the Speakes statement on the budget.

Other lawmakers also are defending the budget process, a procedure set up by a 1974 law and which has been under attack ever since. Before the budget act, Congress merely passed bills to spend money and then added up the total at year's end. Some on Capitol Hill would like to return to that system.

Going back to the old way would be ''chaotic,'' Sen. Nancy L. Kassebaum (R) of Kansas told reporters at breakfast last week. However, as a member of the Senate Budget Committee, she has few illusions about the budget as a curative for fiscal ills.

''I think we're creating this budget with mirrors, and maybe we're not terribly serious about it,'' she said. Its usefulness, she added, is that it highlights problems such as the rapid growth of entitlements benefits ranging from federal pensions to medicare. But she acknowledged that even while the budget shows the ''outrageous toll'' that entitlements take, passing budgets has done little to curb the growth of these programs.

Other members of Congress are even less sanguine about the budget process. Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D) of Washington last week called the budget ''meaningless.'' He told reporters that congressmen ''never follow it anyway.''

What seems apparent during the current budget battle is that the budget is at best an outline for government taxing and spending. It highlights the big spending items and the deficit and sets guidelines.

But it is also a highly political document that may have little resemblance to reality. Earlier this year, House Democrats pushed through a budget that includes $30 billion in new taxes for next year and a much lower deficit than the President's budget plan. The House passed its budget despite the fact that virtually no one on Capitol Hill believes Congress would levy $30 billion in new taxes for the fiscal year beginning next October.

Meanwhile, Democrats and moderate Republicans are using the current budget fight to gain more political power in the Senate. They are pointing with horror at the $192 billion deficit projected in the budget the Republican leadership proposed, and insisting on higher revenues to reduce it.

Conservative Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R) of Iowa grumbled last week to reporters about such ''born-again budget balancers'' among the liberals. ''I just think increasing taxes encourages big-spending liberals,'' he told a press breakfast.

Despite budget politicking, the Senate action last week gives some reassurance to supporters of the budget process. A moderate Republican proposal for a 6 percent after-inflation increase in defense and $9 billion in new taxes for next year almost won. A new compromise that comes close to that plan is almost assured a bipartisan majority of the full Senate, probably on Wednesday.

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