The longer Congress wrestles with the deficit problem, the clearer it becomes that the only way to balance the budget is to balance it. That is not a tautology; it means there are no shortcuts, no procedural gimmicks, no painless solutions available.
It also means that nothing other than a balanced formula of spending cuts and revenue increases will produce reductions of sufficient scale to offer genuine evidence that the problem is at last being addressed.
Once again this past week, Congress and the president dodged the necessity for hard choices by extending the debt ceiling until after President Reagan returns from the Geneva summit. Republicans and Democrats agreed to let Uncle Sam go on borrowing a bit longer, rather than send Reagan into Mikhail Gorbachev's parlor as the head of a deadbeat nation. But that kind of temporizing does not stop the deficit hemmorhage.
There is a lot of appeal in the suggestion from Rep. James R. Jones (D-Okla.), the former House Budget Committee chairman, that Reagan invite the leaders of both parties in Congress to a post-Geneva "domestic summit" aimed at resolving the year-long deadlock on the budget.
Whether that procedure is followed, or the normal executive-legislative arrangements are tried, both the president and Congress will have to face this issue again before the year is over.
By then, there may be an added imperative in the form of the Gramm-Rudman bill -- a measure that purports to set an "automatic" timetable for eliminating the deficit by the end of the decade. Congress seems likely to pass it, not because very many people think it will work, but because they are politically frightened to oppose it.
But Gramm-Rudman is still a device for delaying the inevitable hard choices. The way out of the swamp lies in another hyphenated hybrid, the budget proposal put forward last summer by Sens. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) and Lawton M. Chiles Jr. (D-Fla.). The Gorton- Chiles plan, unlike Gramm-Rudman, did not just mandate future cuts sufficient to reach specified budget targets. It made those hard decisions -- and in the only way that will ultimately prove acceptable, with everybody giving up something important for the sake of real deficit reduction.
The projected savings of Gorton-Chiles would eliminate red-ink deficits at least as fast as the schedule set forth in the Senate version of Gramm-Rudman -- and in a far fairer fashion.
Defense and domestic discretionary spending would be held down, but not cut as deeply and haphazardly as would be necessary if Gramm-Rudman went into effect. By exempting Social Security, military procurement contracts and some favored domestic programs from any cuts, the alternative Senate and House versions of Gramm-Rudman put an intolerable burden on the remaining fraction of the budget.
Gorton and Chiles, on the other hand, ask the pensioners to contribute to the solution of the deficit problem by forgoing their cost-of- living increase for one year. They freeze defense spending for one year, and then increase it at the rate of 3 percent a year as Reagan has requested. They ask today's taxpayers -- individuals and corporations -- to stop shoveling our bills off onto the next generation by accepting a $59 billion tax increase over the next three years.
Unlike the Gramm-Rudman bill, which postpones the moment of truth on hard budget choices, the principal sponsors of Gorton- Chiles actually did take political risks. Chiles, representing Florida and its vast population of retirees, said openly he would deny them for one year their expected cost-of-living adjustments.
Gorton, a freshman senator facing reelection next year, said openly that, despite Reagan's anti-tax rhetoric, here was one Republican who was ready to ask his constituents to pay more taxes.
That kind of courage will have to become contagious if we are to see more than gimmick "solutions" to the deficit problem. The question is whether the leaders of the executive and legislative branches are willing to lead on this issue. When the Gorton-Chiles plan was first presented last July, Reagan and House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. cooperated all right. They conspired under the White House oak tree to strangle the plan at birth.
Gorton and Chiles offered their suggestion as a way to break the deadlock over the budget resolution. But Reagan balked at the defense freeze and the tax hike, and O'Neill was not willing to let the Social Security pensioners go without their inflation adjustment for even one year. In effect, the capital's top Republican and top Democrat decided to scuttle Gorton-Chiles in the interest of their favorite projects and constituents. At the moment of truth, they both preferred rhetoric and politics to reality and responsibility.
That was last July, and a discouraged Gorton said, "We have lost the last best chance we had of seriously approaching a balanced budget in the foreseeable future."
Five months later, no other way of reaching that goal has been found. In December, Reagan and O'Neill may have a chance to redeem themselves, if they now understand that the only way to balance the budget is to balance it.