THE HOUSE should approve the budget agreement between the president and congressional leaders today, not because it's that great but because it's unlikely to get any better. The risk is at least as great for each party that it could get worse, and the blame for its defeat could surprise the politicians; it could be greater than the blame for passage.

The agreement reflects the election returns; we have divided government in this country. The negotiators were faithful to the views of their parties and did the best they could. The crude draw that resulted is not going to be fundamentally changed.

The deficit won't be reduced without tax increases. It can't be; the campaign fiction that it can is smashed. The Republicans nonetheless still have the executive branch and enough of the legislative to sustain a veto; the tax increases are not going to be as progressive as they ought to be or as the Democrats would like or as would be needed to undo the lost progressivity of the Reagan years.

The defense budget is not going to be kept as high as the administration would prefer nor cut as much as some House Democrats particularly have urged. But that was going to be the case summit or not; the military budget was going to end up in the middle (which incidentally is where on the merits, for security as opposed to fiscal reasons, it ought to be). The argument here is on the margin.

The complaint is also heard that the elderly would be squeezed by the cuts in Medicare. So they would, but payments in support of the elderly now approach a third of the budget, and one reason Medicare had to be hit hard was that it was decided on political grounds that Social Security could not be hit at all. The poor and near-poor would be held harmless against the increases in out-of-pocket costs. The postal service would also be hit, so that the price of a stamp would go up more than otherwise as costs were transferred from taxpayers to mailers. Is that so awful? Farm supports would be reduced as well; does anyone argue that they should be exempt? Most other domestic spending would be allowed to rise at the rate of inflation; if some programs went up more, others would have to increase less. That's fair in a span of tight budgets.

If the budget resolution is approved today, the implementing committees can still improve it around the edges. We hope they will, in particular that the more egregious tax breaks on which the administration insisted in the name of growth will be nailed as tight as the tax committees can. But the thing can't be improved until it's passed, and what the House will get if it isn't passed is worse -- not just the false thrills of Gramm-Rudman, but a continuation of the steady drain the deficit represents on the economy and Congress' own ability to govern. A vote no is a vote to continue the stalemate; neither party wins from that.