TO MAKE their budget come out even, congressional Republicans continue to put disproportionate pressure on federal programs for the poor. Majority Leader Richard Armey announced yesterday that, after some hesitation, House leaders had decided to finance the largest of the domestic appropriations bills partly by stretching out payments that would otherwise be made to the working poor next fiscal year under the terms of the earned income tax credit.

This is the bill for the departments of labor, health and human services and education. Many of the programs in it are themselves for lower-income people. The poor are in effect being tapped to finance their own aid. Defenders say not to worry, that the stretch-out is merely a gimmick, not a cut, and therefore not to be taken seriously. It's a strange defense.

The same bill will likewise be financed by recouping several billions in supposedly excess welfare payments that the states were saving against the cost increases that will likely accompany the next recession. They were promised the extra money as part of welfare reform in 1996. Republican leaders are in the position of having to defend this, too, as a gimmick, even as they ask that their budget be taken seriously. They tell the worried governors the "borrowed" funds will be replaced fiscal year after next. But that year the budget is due to be even tighter than it is now.

To stay within spending limits, both House and Senate have also denied an increase the administration requested in subsidized housing funds. Not a cut, the congressional people rightly say -- except that need is rising, and rival programs for veterans and other stronger constituencies did receive funding increases. The Senate meanwhile proposes to take a large slice out of the major social services block grant to the states. Why not make the same savings by cutting subsidies to other sectors of society -- the oil industry, for example, which the Senate voted to protect the other day? You wait in vain for an answer to that one.

The Senate, however, does not seem disposed to defer the earned income tax payments that Mr. Armey mentioned yesterday. It has thought of a different gimmick. It will pay for the labor, health and human services appropriations bill by borrowing from defense. Then the shortfall in defense can be declared an emergency, and under the budget rules the spending won't count. It isn't spending that counts in this budget. It's pretense.