WITH THE SENATE leadership currently unable to line up a majority behind any of the budget compromises on the table--we leave aside the subsequent need to get agreement with the House--the possibility of stalemate is real. President Reagan has made it clear that he doesn't really care if the congressional budget process goes down in flames, as long as he gets his tax cuts and defense increases. Should anyone else care?
It is true that preserving a process without substance--passing a resolution that has no chance of being translated into action--only postpones admitting the process is a failure. But reaching agreement on budget control is vitally important. If Congress adopts the resolution that the president now insists upon, the nation will be facing a string of deficits that, not only in magnitude but in terms of their claim on GNP, will be without precedent in the nation's history. Only at the peak of World War II was the deficit share--briefly--much higher.
These projections are, moreover, optimistic. They assume, for example, that a steady economic recovery continues--something that may be doubted if federal debt is absorbing over half of all private saving. And they also assume that Congress continues to submit to the discipline, however attenuated, of the budget process.
Without the budget reconciliation process there will be no way to force authorizing committees to make statutory changes restraining the big entitlement programs that dominate the domestic budget. Even with respect to domestic spending controlled by annual appropriations, the president will find it difficult to keep committee chairmen from pushing through increases in programs favored by their constituencies. And, of course, the president himself will be under pressure to play the same spending game with committees that control defense.
In insisting that Senate leaders stand by a budget resolution that even his own party won't support, the president has undercut the authority of men who have served his interests well thus far. He has apparently decided to count on congressional inertia to get him the tax cuts and defense increases he wants, and let the budget process fall apart. That process, with its dogged insistence on adding up spending and subtracting revenues, makes it too hard for him to square his policies with his oft- sworn allegiance to balanced budgets.
On the Topic A page today, Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker says he is still confident that "some way or the other" Congress will pass a budget resolution. But the votes in the Senate last week make it clear that the needed majority can only come from a bipartisan coalition of Senate moderates. White House aides said on Friday that the president will give the Senate "running room," but the president himself reaffirmed his opposition to tax increases. It appears that Sen. Baker will yet find himself forced to choose between allegiance to the president and commitment to the integrity of the congressional budget process.