FAIRNESS is a contentious issue for federal budget cutters, and the debate over fairness could grow much louder if government aid to business -- so-called ''corporate welfare'' -- is left largely untouched.
This kind of Washington largess is distributed across the departmental spectrum -- commerce, agriculture, defense, transportation, and energy. It includes payments to promote US goods abroad, research funding, price supports, and subsidized electric service.
The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank influential in Republican circles, estimates corporate welfare this year will top $86 billion.
The Progressive Policy Institute, which has Democratic ties, tallies billions more in special tax benefits for businesses.
Labor Secretary Robert Reich, breaking ranks with administration colleagues, has called for sharp trims in corporate welfare. Some conservatives, such as Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, have joined that call.
Among the most ''egregious'' specimens of this kind of pork, according to Cato researchers, are $300 million to car manufacturers for the development of cleaner cars, $150 million to construct roads for lumber companies, $110 million to help food giants advertise abroad, and $90 million to a consortium of high-tech firms for development of microchips.
The corporate recipients of these public outlays can argue the economic benefits extend beyond them to American workers and the country itself. Aren't these public investments to help ''grow'' the economy and sharpen United States competitiveness?
Such arguments may have merit, but so do the arguments being made for lots of other programs coming under the budget ax -- support for the arts, for example, or for public broadcasting.
And those enterprises have nowhere near the resources of many of the companies drawing on tax dollars.
Some of these firms are also big players in the political realm, giving many thousands of dollars in campaign contributions. That's added reason for putting ''federal aid to dependent corporations'' (Secretary Reich's term) squarely on the block during this season of budget chopping.
If the quest for fiscal soundness is to have the integrity claimed by its backers in Congress, there's no room for favoritism toward some of those who least need public help -- and who profess to scorn it.