Rep. Bill Gray, a Philadelphia Democrat, exposed his neck to the ax by becoming chairman of the House Budget Committee, thereby becoming conspicuously associated with a process that ruins reputations. But his is some neck. The ax has bounced off it, and Gray has become the central player in the main game of governance: budget-making.
It is oldies but goodies time at the White House as the president plays the sound track of fundamentalist Reaganism -- low taxes, budget cutting, line-item veto, balanced-budget constitutional amendment. Gray's counterpoint is that the deficit is being trimmed, but as a result of legislative, not executive, leadership.
Gray sensibly opposed the Gramm-Rudman deficit-reduction law and now, sensibly, wants to save it. He opposed it because its provision for ''across-the-board'' budget cuts institutionalized Congress' reluctance to make hard choices. Now it cannot be complied with unless modified, and it should be modified because it is working, although in a manner unsatisfying to the tidy-minded.
It is working because it has changed the climate in Congress by codifying a generally felt imperative to shrink the deficit. However, when it was written in late 1985, the numbers plugged into it were based on the assumption that the deficit total from which the shrinkage would begin would be $180 billion. Hence the requirement to reduce it to zero in five equal increments of $36 billion. But that first-year deficit turned out to be $221 billion, so the process began $41 billion skewed. Furthermore, the Gramm-Rudman targets assumed an economic growth rate of 3.6 percent annually. Reagan's average from calendar year 1981 through 1986 is 2.4 percent; the post-1945 average is 3.4 percent.
Gramm-Rudman can be fixed by lengthening the time to be taken (six or seven rather than five years of equal cuts of whatever size is required) or sticking to the requirement of $36 billion for however long it takes to reach balance.
Of course, no one thinks a zero deficit is urgent. But, then, Gramm-Rudman is less a law than an exercise in self-nagging by Congress. The law will not stay the (five-year) course, but it does set a course.
The budget proposal Gray has cobbled together this year puts the president in a box because it makes the level of defense spending higher if new revenues are accepted. Contemporary conservatism will be characterized by the president's choice: What does conservatism most care about enhancing -- the security of the West or the disposable income of the individual?
Another aspect of Gray's proposal -- ''Gray's piggy bank'' -- is designed to counter the widespread belief that Democrats will spend new revenues rather than use them to reduce the deficit. His ''deficit-reduction trust fund'' is really an accounting procedure: whatever sum is added by new revenues must be matched by deficit reductions beyond reductions achieved by spending cuts.
It is absurd that Jesse Jackson, who is in no sense a man of government, is the preeminent black politician at a time when Gray's name appears high on every sensible person's short list of this town's tall cotton.
Were Gray a Republican (in terms of balancing revenues and outlays, he practices what Republicans used to preach), he might be on the national ticket in 1988. Unfortunately (for both parties and for blacks), the Democratic Party gets 90 percent of the black vote automatically.
Gray was born in Louisiana 46 years ago -- 10 weeks before the current chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Mississippi's Jamie Whitten, was elected to Congress. Gray is an oddity -- a liberal who is serious about winning -- and he knows Democrats cannot win the White House while losing white southern votes the way Walter Mondale did (three to one). That thought triggers others.
If Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia is the Democratic nominee, he will, I wager, win. Republicans are out of practice running against intelligent centrists.
If Nunn seeks the Democratic nomination, some of the people most pleased may be Georgia's black leaders (such as Andrew Young, Maynard Jackson, Martin Luther King III) who, like black leaders elsewhere, are eager for an excuse not to support Jackson. What Nunn needs, perhaps to encourage him to run and certainly to help him win the nomination, is support, right now, from some northern liberals.
When Gray is asked his choice for his party's presidential nomination, he is too politic to commit to a particular person, but Nunn's name is high -- very high -- on Gray's short list. Together they could change the course of American politics.