SUPPOSE THAT the budget does, in fact, collapse into a stalemate in the many-sided quarrel among the White House and various factions in Congress. Suppose that all those tentative compromises fail, along with all those elegant ploys to force people's unwilling cooperation. It's all unpleasantly possible. What might you reasonably expect to happen next?

The government won't fold up. Continuing resolutions will keep the money moving along--an awkward compromise between the president's attempts to cut spending further and contrary inclinations in Congress. There will be a noisy and rancorous row in May over the legislation to raise the budget ceiling. The bill is routine, but there will be repeated attempts to use it as a veto-proof vehicle to compel the president to move in one direction or another. Without some sort of a revision by the president, it may be impossible to get the first budget resolution --setting the basic spending and deficit targets for next year--through either house. If May 15, the legal deadline for the resolution, slides by with no promise of action, there will be rising anxiety that the budget process has fallen apart.

Anxiety drives interest rates up, and in those circumstances it is likely that the rates would remain unusually high. That, in turn, would suppress any significant recovery from the recession. Next summer, in that atmosphere, the bankruptcy of one large industrial company--and you can think of half a dozen much-discussed candidates--could well set off a panic in Congress. Opinion there might suddenly veer away from any further attempt to hold down inflation, on grounds that it was all too costly and too damaging.

One conceivable reaction might then be a drive for legislation to force the Federal Reserve Board to change its monetary policy. That kind of legislation would inevitably prove futile since, in the absence of any improvement in the budget, an assault on the Federal Reserve could only increase fears of higher inflation--resulting in higher interest rates regardless of congressional intentions.

It is not unknown for two contradictory impulses to gather momentum simultaneously in Congress, and the sense of disorder might also push forward that constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget. It's a wretched idea, and its consequences would be very different from its authors' expectations, but it is already picking up support. Frustration rarely evokes the best in politics. It's not difficult to imagine a moment in which a few crude and destructive bills might be whooped along by people who, for the moment, felt that they needed to act fast and had no alternative to offer.

Quite possibly none of these things will happen. We certainly hope not. But neither will they remain entirely beyond the limits of possibility, if the budget remains unresolved through the spring. A budget stalemate carries risks on an order that no politician, for the country's sake or his own, can sensibly entertain.