Budget priorities

AMERICANS have always had a facility for achieving a clear objective -- whether taming a wilderness, as occurred throughout much of the last century, or, in more recent years, pursuing victory in World War II or sending a man to the moon. Such past endeavors are important to recollect now that the United States is once again facing a major challenge: Unlike past challenges, the current situation is more subtle -- involving bookkeeping ledgers, budgetary guidelines, and the way the nation goes about putting its own economic house in order. But the challenge -- although involving matters of economics -- is no less crucial. Simply put, the United States has been living beyond its means, with the costs of government exceeding tax receipts. The federal budget deficits projected for the next few years -- in the range of $200 billion annually -- are imposing upward pressure on interest rates, working against US exports abroad, and threatening sustained economic recovery.

No other single issue on the nation's domestic political agenda is as important as shaping a plan to bring the deficit under control. Indeed, the matter has taken on a new urgency with last week's disclosure by Budget Director David Stockman that the gap between federal outlays and federal receipts -- the deficit -- will be even larger than anticipated a month ago, when President Reagan approved a tentative deficit-reduction proposal.

What must be done seems increasingly clear:

The White House: Mr. Reagan needs to take advantage of his recent election victory by moving flat out on the deficit issue. Most second-term presidents tend to have a very limited ``window of opportunity'' during which they can initiate major policy changes. After the first year they tend to become lame-duck presidents as lawmakers look to midterm elections and then the next -- in this case, 1988 -- presidential election.

Congress: Since Congress is divided, with a Republican-led Senate and a Democratic-led House, it must avoid the temptation to become bogged down in partisan strife. That's particularly important this year. Many Republican senators will be more independent vis-`a-vis the White House than was the case during the first Reagan term, since they know they must face voters in the 1986 midterm elections, when Mr. Reagan's coattails are expected to be far less effective, because of his lame-duck status, than they were in the past few years

The plan. Although Congress must avoid both fratricide between its two chambers and partisan squabbling with the White House, it still needs to take a balanced and principled course of its own on the budget. In that regard, the comprehensive across-the-board type of budget freeze now being broached by Republican senators is preferable to the White House budget plan for fiscal year 1986 and beyond.

The White House plan would make drastic cuts in a number of domestic social programs while leaving social security untouched and making only modest trims in future defense outlays.

The plan being put together by GOP senators, by contrast, would make sharper cuts in defense spending and impose a one-year freeze on the social security cost of living increase. Efforts by GOP Senate leaders to work out a compromise on a budget freeze with the White House deserve public support.

The latest disclosure by Mr. Stockman showing that the President's proposed budget falls far short of White House deficit-reduction goals is reason enough to move ahead with the more comprehensive freeze advocated in the Senate.

A comprehensive freeze would be fairer than the White House plan in that it touches virtually all segments of society, including the military.

Congress is back in session. Mr. Reagan will soon be inaugurated for a second term. Once that happens, once all the current start-of-the-new-year formalities are set aside in official Washington, the White House and Congress should let nothing stand between them in working together to bring down the deficits.

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