THE SEQUENCE of statements from the White House on the subject of taxes and deficits has become more than usually perplexing. Standing in the Rose Garden, at his press conference Wednesday, President Reagan declined to comment one way or the other on the idea of an income tax surcharge. Some of his staff immediately began assuring reporters of the extreme significance of the president's posture: he had not rejected the surcharge out of hand. That, they said, was a broad hint.
But the next day, in Chicago, Mr. Reagan was more explicit. He said, "Raising taxes is not the way to balance the budget. . . . If people are serious about balancing the budget, they must cut spending." It is possible to argue that he left an element of ambiguity, since the context suggests that he was thinking primarily of the third stage of his cherished tax plan, the 10 percent cut in tax rates due in July 1983. But it doesn't sound as though there were a lot of flex in his view of tax increases.
Intense negotiations are under way among the White House staff and various people in Congress over a fundamental revision of the president's budget for next year and its enormous deficit. Perhaps the president's comments are only part of the inevitable maneuvering--the theatrical side of semi-public bargaining. That's the more likely explanation, and the more encouraging one. But it's possible that Mr. Reagan really doesn't intend to support any significant tax increase. In that case, the country would be headed toward serious economic trouble. That is the prospect that makes people--and markets--jittery.
What about a tax surcharge? In principle, it's preferable to repealing the 1983 rate reduction, but it doesn't raise nearly as much money. There have been tentative murmurs about a surcharge of 4 percent on personal incomes over $40,000 a year, and on corporate income. That would raise something in the range of $7 billion a year. Repealing the 1983 rate reduction would mean more than $30 billion. This is the reason that a good many people in Congress keep coming back to the 1983 rate reduction, even though it would bear most heavily on middle- income taxpayers who have got, so far, very little from the Reagan tax cuts. The biggest beneficiaries are people with high incomes, and corporations. There would be a considerable degree of justice to the surcharge. But it would have to be supplemented by other substantial tax increases, perhaps on oil, to raise the amounts of money now necessary.
Questions of tax equity are always a nice subject for philosophical debate. Unfortunately, time is running very short. At this point, the best tax increase will be the one that can be passed most quickly and simply. It's already very late in the year to begin a basic revision of a president's budget, and even the best of budgets will be useless if it arrives too late to be enacted into law.