THE IRAQI invasion of Kuwait, the swift response of oil prices and the familiar threat of recession the higher prices represent for the U.S. economy produced a premature sigh of relief in one strange corner of the country. Some members of Congress and leaders of interest groups who had been faced with the prospect of voting on and/or enduring budget cuts suggested that the risk to the economy was such that they should be let off the hook. What greater mistake than to take lots of federal money out of the national spending stream at just the time when higher oil prices were themselves acting like a major tax increase and having the same effect?

Wednesday, however, President Bush and Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady wisely joined others in and out of Congress in quashing this false doctrine. It may indeed be that the new risk to an already fading economy will counsel cutting the deficit less next year and more in the latter years of whatever multiyear plan is agreed to. It is also a tricky time for monetary policy, but for a somewhat different combination of reasons that is as true if the deficit is not cut as if it is. That is why the president was right to announce that it remains "absolutely essential to get a budget agreement"; the Treasury secretary usefully added that "the problems facing the U.S. can {all} be better handled if we have the budget deficit under control."

In fact, the great risk in not acting on the deficit during the good times of the past eight years was always precisely that the economy would turn down and the problem would have to be faced during bad times instead. The threat was that recession would increase and institutionalize the deficit at an even higher level. At the very time when they should be low to stimulate recovery, interest rates would have to be higher than otherwise to draw in the necessary funds from abroad. The higher rates would weaken the economy at home, stimulate imports at the expense of exports and leave the United States hostage to economic policies in Europe and Japan, since rates would have to remain competitive. The continuing result would be to drain the U.S. economy and leave the government without the means to address the social problems the recession would compound.

That's what the great party during the Reagan and first Bush years cost. The flight from responsibility then means the country may now have to work its way out of the problem in adverse circumstances, but it's still got to do so. Some of the people now saying the deficit cannot be cut because the country is on the verge of recession were the same ones saying earlier that it could not be cut because the economy was in the midst of expansion. There is never a good time -- but "we cannot be strong when the budget deficit is where it is," Mr. Brady said the other day. He's right.