Deficits and the system

Concern grows in Washington over the size of the deficit. A deeper concern is showing, too: Is there something the matter with our form of government that it can't rise to meet an evident emergency that threatens to become a crisis a few years hence?

It isn't a ''crisis'' yet. Actually things are growing temporarily better. That is one difficulty. We are recovering from the worst economic slump since the '30s and the up-cycle isn't exhausted. Put it in figures: A year ago unemployment soared to 10.6 percent. Now it's down to 8.1 percent. A year hence it should be 7 percent. Fine for President Reagan's reelection chances! But the normal path of the economic cycle is familiar. The recovery has been achieved in part by an enormous spending spree. The United States is living beyond its means. The question is whether our government is capable of the discipline needed to meet the threat.

Washington reporters are dealing with the matter as they are trained to do. They point out that Congress hates to raise taxes in an election year. So does a president. There is always big Paul Volcker, chairman of the Federal Reserve system, to deal with the problem if Congress and the President let things get out of hand. Of course, when he puts on the brakes, many blame him for the jerk that follows. The same thing may happen in 1985. The interest rate - cost of borrowing money - goes through the roof. When you buy a house or a car, or when millions of debtors borrow money, the costs become exorbitant. Thrift organizations ask more for consumer loans. The prime loan rate is already 11 percent, bringing in speculators money from all over the world to profit by the ''strong'' dollar. As things are going, the prosperity-recovery loan rate is likely to rise to 12 and 12 1/4 percent. Will it stop there?.

This week the Committee to Fight Inflation, a prestigious bipartisan group of former government officials released a report circulated by American Enterprise Institute that says:

* In the current year, the government is borrowing $1 out of every $4 it spends.

* The prospective deficits this year, amounting to about 5 percent of GNP, will absorb the bulk of private saving.

* Interest charges on the federal debt alone are estimated to exceed $100 billion in the current year. (That equals more than $400 for every man, woman, and child in the nation).

* It took nearly two centuries for the federal government to accumulate it's first trillion dollars of debt. The second trillion will pile up in less than five years.

There are voices in Washington crying alarm. Last weekend ABC News put Senators Robert J. Dole (R) of Kansas and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York on its Sunday TV show. Mr. Dole is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and Mr. Moynihan is a member of that committee and of the budget committee. It was particularly interesting, I thought, to hear Senator Dole, stalwart supporter of Mr. Reagan, urge him to be more active.

''We need some strong leadership from the White House and from the speaker,'' he said. He and Moynihan agreed on cuts in expenditures and more taxes to reduce a deficit this year of around $180 billion. ''I believe,'' said Mr. Dole, ''it's not only good policy but good politics to be out in front, and that's where I want the President.'' He said: ''I want to face up to the deficits now. . . . I believe that if (Reagan) would indicate a willingness to compromise with Tip O'Neill and others, we could do it.''

It's a question. Doubts begin to rise about the system itself. Says Moynihan: ''We have got to raise taxes. . . . We are really mortgaging the future.'' Says the policy statement of the Committee to Fight Inflation, ''Federal outlays will exceed federal revenues by roughly $200 billion in every fiscal year from 1984 through 1988.'' The bipartisan group calls it ''intolerable.''

There are economists who deny the danger, but most scholars are by now sending out warning signals. It makes a second drama here in Washington. On one stage, a presidential election begins to unfold; on another, the question arises again whether our uniquely divided government is capable of advocating the sacrifices that the times seem to require - despite the temptation to procrastinate and stalemate.

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