THE 102nd Congress convenes today, with some members already saying it is their duty to be generous to combat the recession. The president says if he's sent the traditional stimulative legislation he'll veto it, and he should. The projected deficits this fiscal year and next are already more than $250 billion and rising. Those are record amounts and pump-priming enough for a sick economy. The problem is the reverse of the usual one -- not that the deficit is too low, but that for too many years it has been too high.
The administration has begun to acknowledge that the recession is occurring. The president says in an interview that he expects it to be short and mild. That would be another reason not to indulge in the public works program that is generally part of Congress' response on such occasions. Too often by the time the authorized projects are underway, the recession in whose name they were passed is over.
But even if the recession turns worse than now forecast, the president and Congress should stick to the budget agreement that cost them so much last fall. Rather than add to the underlying deficit by not financing new spending, they must force the deficit down. In the long run the economy will benefit. More money will be freed for private investment at lower interest rates without the present debilitating dependence on foreign loans. The budget agreement will free the government as well. The president and Congress will again have the means they lack today of addressing accumulated social problems -- but only after the deficit comes down.
The president's budget has yet to be seen, but he said in the interview that "the worst, last thing we ought to do" under present circumstances is "have a lot of spending programs aimed to 'put America back to work.' These short-range government spending answers have historically proved counterproductive, and I will not embrace them. . . . I have no plans to spend a lot of new federal dollars in order to accelerate recovery."
That's fair enough for now. Congress and the administration too, for that matter, can still try to help the recession's victims; they ought to. But the help needs to be financed, if not by a tax increase then by shifting funds within the budget rather than adding to the deficit. That's the rule, and given the economic risks through which the country is now steering, it's the right one.