ONE BUDGET CUT shouldn't be so difficult. An example of a big-spending plan that could readily be sacrificed to fiscal austerity is the higher education reauthorization bill. Last fall, Rep. William Ford shepherded through the House a bill costing more than $2 billion over budgeted amounts and expanding virtually every student assistance program. This bill is now before a Senate subcommittee and it should be drastically revised -- downward.

Two things need to happen. First, the overall cost needs to come down, meaning that subsidies to middle- and upper-income students and to the banks that make the loans need trimming. Next, a number of automatic triggers in the student-assistance programs, which generate expenditures regardless of what officials think is necessary, need to be eliminated. The Guaranteed Student Loan program is a classic "uncontrollable" now, and the House bill moves the Basic Grants program perilously far in that direction.

These automatic triggers and formulas got their start in the jurisdictional rivalry between the authorizing and appropriating committees over who would control the relative size of various programs. It is dumb to base policy decisions on such petty disputes. The Senate subcommittee has a very important opportunity: to create a bill that protects the important principle of access to undergraduate education for the poor, but which does not break the bank. President Carter has said he will veto any bill that has not been made considerably more reasonable than the House version. If Congress is as serious about the fiscal crisis as the House Budget Committee action last week suggests, big changes need to be made in higher ed legislation.