CONGRESSIONAL Republicans are playing a shabby game on taxes. There is no group of Americans that more loudly bewails the deficit than they. But last summer when the Democrats produced a budget resolution to reduce the deficit, the Republicans sat on their hands because it would have required a $19 billion tax increase. In a trillion dollar budget that's something less than a confiscatory act; it's a 2 percent increase in the revenues the government is otherwise expected to take in. Even though neither they nor their president had an alternative, it was still too much for the GOP.

This fall the Republicans finally did sign onto an even weaker plan, providing for less deficit reduction and implying only a $12 billion tax increase. Even the president signed onto this one, though saying all the while that it was only the deficit reduction he was for, not the means for achieving it. Twelve of the 13 Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee voted for this bill. But now these Republicans have refused to take part in the drafting of the tax increase. You couldn't expect a good Republican to dirty his hands this way, not even in the name of fiscal responsibility. Instead House Republican leader Bob Michel went to Speaker Jim Wright and asked that the plan be revised still again, to shift more of the burden of deficit reduction to spending cuts and require only $8 billion in increased revenues. Mr. Michel, of course, didn't spell out which spending cuts, but you wouldn't expect a shrewd Republican to dirty his hands that way, either.

Now on the Senate side Republicans are also balking at writing a tax bill. The obdurate president will only veto it, they say; why not wait until the alternative of a defense budget cut is closer to hand? Then perhaps the president will be more pliable.

But who believes that? Because the Republicans want to protect their president and the Democrats are still scared of him, Congress has already backed so far away from the proud intentions of last summer that it has almost nothing left to give. Yet still these legislators try to give some more. Let the deficit ride, these quivery leaders say to one another and to whomever else still listens; we'll reduce it later. Next month. Next year. Next administration. You do believe us, don't you? You bet we do