THE bills now pending in Congress to mandate a balanced budget by 1991 have little if anything to do with the practical business of balancing a budget, but a lot to do with politics. The project goes down as one of the boldest and cleverest political maneuvers since the days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The purpose is to transfer the monkey of the vast and mounting federal debt from Republican to Democratic Party backs.
Here is the way the game works:
The size of the federal deficit is now a political liability. People in general have come to recognize that it is dangerous to let the national budget continue unbalanced and the debt to go on climbing to unprecedented and astronomical levels.
Ronald Reagan has doubled the national debt piled up by all of his predecessors from George Washington through Jimmy Carter.
In the public perception his responsibility has been increasingly recognized. Why have there been such massive deficits leading to such a horrifying doubling of the public debt? The automatic answer from most politically knowledgeable people, some Republicans as well as most Democrats, has been the combination of high defense spending and lower taxes.
David Stockman, who did his utmost for five years to achieve a balanced budget, is among those who have put the burden of responsibility on Mr. Reagan. He thought he had persuaded Mr. Reagan to combine cutbacks in defense spending and in social security with a moderate increase in taxes. The budget, he hoped, would be on its way to a balance. And then two things happened:
During the second week in July senators and congressmen trooped back to a hot and sticky Washington from their Fourth of July weekend. The President summoned their leaders to a meeting ``under the oak tree'' on the White House lawn. There, he told them he had decided to drop the social security freeze. Social security payments would continue to enjoy regular cost-of-living increases. There had been a deal.
The President had had a meeting with House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill. Speaker O'Neill had agreed to ease up on defense cuts. In turn Mr. Reagan would exempt social security. Republican leaders, including majority leader Robert Dole, were dismayed. Senator Dole said, ``There was an agreement under the oak tree and it was Dole's limb they sawed off.'' Democrats were elated.
Democrats should have thought twice before cheering. The agreement ``under the oak tree'' neutralized social security and defense as budget issues.
David Stockman resigned on the assumption that there was not going to be a serious attempt at budget balancing during the rest of the Reagan administration. But that left the question of political responsibility very much alive. And that is where the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings bill comes into the picture.
The Reagan-O'Neill deal ``under the oak tree'' leaves the various welfare and public-service programs as the only place in the budget where budget cutting can amount to anything. And those are the areas dearest to the hearts of Democrats. They are bound to fight to the death against further cuts in everything from Amtrak to school lunches.
Democrats are hard put to vote against a bill that is advertised as aimed at deficit cutting and budget balancing. One of its sponsors, Sen. Ernest Hollings, is a Democrat. It will pass in its final form. The House voted 354 to 15 for one version and the Senate by 75 to 24 for another. The project can't lose.
It means that coming budget battles will be fought over the welfare and public-service sections of the budget -- this year and next year and the year after. And whatever happens, Mr. Reagan and the right-wing Republicans gain and the Democrats lose. Either the welfare budget will be cut, which is a long-term Reagan purpose, or the Democrats will get the blame for piling up the deficit.
The Democrats are in a political trap and Mr. Reagan is once more disclosed as a master politician.