THE BUDGET ACTION in Congress this week will move very fast, and for good reason. The funds for black lung benefits, food stamps, disaster relief and another programs this year are almost gone. Pressures are mounting to circumvent the rules of the Budget Act and to appropriate money for these programs without an increase in the budget ceiling, just to make sure the programs aren't detoured. But it is important for Congress both to stick to its own budget rules and to produce the money for these crucial programs. The only way to do that is to go ahead and make the hard choices and quickly and enact the ceilings needed for both 1980 and 1981.
The timing problem has brought to the surface the real challenge in this balance-the-budget year: how to be more restrained without being mean or reckless. Congress has to keep clearly vital programs alive and also resist the temptation to make a charade of restraint -- i.e., to fake it. The House was right to turn down a proposal by Rep. Majorie Holt on Thursday that relied on unattainable but politically attractive across-the-board cuts to take down the domestic spending totals. Real restraint requires real cuts in spending levels for real (and specific) programs. It also requires a start on trimming back the automatic increases in that large part of the federal budget made up of entitlement programs.
It would be nice if levels of boilerplate and blather on this issue could be held down too. An almost universally ignored fact of federal budget-making is that the vagaries of the economy can so change tax receipts as well as obligatory outlays on such things as unemployment insurance and food stamps that no one can be certain to deliver a balanced budget when 1981 actually arrives. This is not in itself a mortal problem; those programs, after all, were designed to be used in hard times. Though some changes in them may be warranted, their countercyclical nature is not likely to change. The problem is the simplistic way the budget oratory addresses these things. If too many political figures persuade their consituents that it is balance itself that is the test of success, they may be in trouble when the gap between revenues and expenditures doesn't close. m
Real changes in the government are contemplated in the resolutions now being debated. Even if such changes do not turn up a set of balanced books by the end of 1981, the move toward restraint will have been an important one. Its importance should not be diminished by harping on the wrong measure of success.