THE FINAL VERSION of the current year's federal budget is now locked in an increasingly intricate -- and sharp -- quarrel between the House and the Senate. What does this dispute tell you about the present congressional view of budgets and money? Above all, it says that the usual election year magic is working in reverse and -- so far, at least -- it is pulling in favor of relatively low numbers and restraint. But restraint at the expense of whom? So far the House doesn't have a precise answer, and the Senate is insisting on one. There the matter is, for the moment, stuck.
The quarrel started with a larger issue. The Senate, preoccupied with the coming votes on SALT II, was inclined to spend more on defense than the House was. The House wanted to spend more on job training than the Senate did. The conference settled that one last week merely by splitting the differences. Now the trouble is enforcement. In an extraordinary display of authority last September, the Senate Budget Committee succeeded in forcing seven other committees -- including untouchables like Finance and Veterans Affairs -- to cut back and stay under the agreed budget limits. In the House, some of the committees have also overstepped the limits. But there the Budget Committee does not have the strength to force them to conform. The question is whether to pass the final budget resolution without the reconciliation requirement, or risk never getting it passed at all.
At this point, six weeks after the legal deadline, it's clearly better to pass the final resolution even in slightly dented and defective condition. Once in effect, reconciled or not, it enables any member to raise a point of order against any expenditure that goes over the budget total. That's a disorderly way of doing business, but it's better than nothing.
Enormous ingenuity has been expended on all sides in these recent weeks to keep the deficit under $30 billion. It's curious how these numbers suddenly take on crucial symbolic importance. The federal deficit for the year ending last Sept. 30 was $27.7 billion, and Congress urgently, and correctly, wants to avoid suggesting any swing to campaign-year relaxation. The deficit proposed for fiscal 1980 is now calculated at $29.8 billion.
If the much-advertised off-and-on recession ever really takes hold, revenues will drop and, of course, the deficit will start upward automatically. But it would be the first recession under the present congressional budget rules, which make the deficit a legally binding limit. If Congress doesn't vote to raise the deficit, spending has to be cut to conform. It would be interesting to see how Congress, in the midst of an election campaign, might deal with that one.