THE HOUSE will be asked this week to put aviation spending at the absolute head of the line in the competition for federal funds, ahead of national defense, law enforcement, tax collection, education, you name it. The exemption from normal budget constraints is the brainchild of Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bud Shuster, who won a similarly ill-advised and budget-bending bye for highways in the last Congress.

The chairmen of the budget, tax and appropriations committees -- Reps. John Kasich, Bill Archer and Bill Young -- will jointly urge that the money grab be stricken from what would then become a conventional federal aviation reauthorization bill. It's extraordinary to have these three aligned this way. Theirs is the right position, and the House should have the sense and self-respect to uphold it.

There may well be a need for an increase in airport and airway spending, as Mr. Shuster contends. But the government faces many needs; the annual judgment of which ones to satisfy is what Mr. Shuster would essentially suspend in the aviation industry's behalf. His justification is partly that since the money in the aviation trust fund comes from aviation taxes, it should all automatically be spent for aviation purposes. But total aviation spending is regularly more than total aviation taxes, in that billions in general funds also are used; the traveling public which pays the aviation taxes is hardly being shortchanged.

Mr. Shuster suggests that no competing governmental interest would suffer at the hands of aviation were his bill enacted. But that, too, is obviously wrong. There is only so much money to go around; if aviation gets more, something else gets less. The congressman claims to have an understanding with House Speaker Dennis Hastert to the effect that if this bill passes, the tax cut the Republicans want to give will be correspondingly reduced -- and otherwise that aviation taxes will be cut. But tax committee Chairman Archer has said pointedly that he is not a party to that understanding.

The Senate has also gone on record against what Mr. Shuster proposes. The House has budget problems enough without this gambit, which the administration also opposes, and which both parties should vote down.