Budget freeze, arms thaw: the outlook is starting to improve

Washington pundits are enjoying a wonderful winter. They have both a freeze and a thaw to put into their weathercasting. The freeze in question is any of a half-dozen proposals for closing the superdeficit gap over the next four years. One congressional aide close to the budget-cutters reports that ``whatever comes out of the Senate in the way of deficit cutting will be called a freeze, no matter what it is.''

The thaw in question is, of course, the new Moscow-Washington relationship. It shows promise of becoming the fourth thaw in the post-World War II period. (The first was a brief Eisenhower-Khrushchev d'etente that was ended by the shooting down of the U-2 plane. The second, a post-Cuban-missile-crisis warming, began with the signing of the limited test ban treaty and ended with the Kennedy assassination and escalation in Vietnam. The third was the Nixon-Kissinger d'etente.)

Among the news media and scholarly pundits, it's generally fashionable to be pessimistic about both deficit cutting and arms control -- the freeze and the thaw. On past evidence this seems to be shortsighted weathercasting.

It's true that the last two American presidents have promised budget balancing, only to see the deficit gap widen. And it's true that the arms control record has not been promising.

But conventional wisdom about impasses on the deficit and arms talks may be wrong. Skeptics said Congress wouldn't vote a down payment on deficit cutting last year. But it did. Skeptics would not have believed that the White House and Kremlin could agree to talk about Euromissiles, intercontinental missiles, and nuclear defense systems all at once. But they are about to do so.

The White House is in the Persian-rug-trading stage of bargaining with Congress and the Politburo on the these two somewhat related subjects. Mr. Reagan has opened his dickering with Congress with an exaggerated bid on defense. That will undoubtedly be whittled down to an inflation-adjusted budget growth figure for the Pentagon of about 3 to 4 percent next year. Research funds for the Strategic Defense Initiative (``star wars'') will probably survive, but be trimmed back. The amounts may depend on how Congress perceives the new arms control talks to be going by midyear.

Master bargainer Reagan is also trying to finesse the Congress into ``forcing'' him to accept a big budget cut through slicing back social security indexing. His technicians have pointed out all along that he never pledged specifically not to touch pension indexing when Walter Mondale backed him into a rhetorical corner. But in the finest jujitsu tradition, Reagan needs to appear to be pushed by a bipartisan wave in Congress to do what probably has to be done.

The Democratic majority in the House has countered that if the President wants to shave back the inflation-proofing of social security, he will have to take the lead -- and the heat -- himself. That is a threat to make the GOP suffer over social security in the midterm elections of 1986, as the Republicans did in 1982.

And that is the reason that ``freeze'' is the buzzword of the hour once more. A freeze could include defense, entitlement indexing, and even income-tax indexing under an equal-sacrifice umbrella.

One new Democratic version of a freeze is being put forward by that old freeze hand, Sen. Ernest Hollings of South Carolina. It calls for a five-year package: the first year, an across-the-board freeze at current spending levels; succeeding years, allowing some growth in entitlements and defense. A similar freeze program is being readied by GOP moderates.

Meanwhile, Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz are trying to keep funding for both long-range missile modernization (the MX) and ``star wars'' research away from the budget ax.

No secrecy is possible in this maneuvering. Soviet Ambassador Anatoly F. Dobrynin and his Politburo bosses know that Congress will determine how many chips Mr. Shultz will have to bargain with. And Congress knows the Kremlin leaders know. That's one reason that the MX has had more lives than Garfield the Cat.

No one wants to build it for Utah, but a majority keeps voting to build it for Geneva.

Meanwhile, back in Moscow, strategic pressures are likely to keep both the triple-headed arms talks and United States-Soviet trade talks alive. Politburo leaders -- particularly the younger ones, who will inherit the job of running the country -- face the need to reinvigorate the ponderous Soviet economy.

The USSR has not kept pace with the high-tech, adaptive world of the US, Japan, Western Europe, and the Korea-to-Singapore boom states. Gosplan central planners are having trouble with slipping oil production (compounded by slipping world prices). The Soviet military-industrial complex faces waste and mismanagement of the kind more highly publicized in the US.

One reason Moscow has attacked Reagan's ``star wars'' initiative so vigorously seems to be difficulty with high-tech miniaturization. The USSR may be capable of lofting a crude particle-beam device up to a space station, but it apparently doesn't have the technology to build lightweight, accurate guidance equipment for a space defense system.

Even on the thorny Euromissile front there is at least a glimmer of hope. The comprehensive framework of the triple talks is likely to draw both Soviet and American negotiators into a broad strategic review of their true deterrence needs -- regional and global. Soviet forces have an excess of SS-20 warheads aimed at NATO missile sites. So, in theory, the Kremlin can afford to bargain about a scaleback.

Soviet planners may be goaded by concern over the addition of more warheads to British and French tactical missiles, as well as increasing numbers of Pershings and cruise missiles, capable of reaching Soviet staging areas behind the bases of Warsaw Pact allies.

In short, pressures for action on both a budget freeze and an arms thaw may be as powerful as the inertial forces resisting them.

Earl W. Foell is editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor.

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