THE DISCUSSIONS going on among the president and various groups in Congress about the wisdom of various allocations of money in the 1981 budget resolution convey two distinct impressions -- both of them wrong. One is that the outcome of the disagreement -- framed in classic guns v. butter terms -- is crucial to either national security or domestic tranquility. Actually, the amounts at issue in 1981 are less than 1 percent of the total $613 billion. And a prime focus of attack, the 1982 and 1983 "outyear" budget authority for the Defense Department, is merely there for decoration in the first place. The budget resolution holds only for 1981. It has no effect on spending in any other year. In short, this debate may be interesting as theater, but the substance is pretty thin.
The second misimpression being conveyed is that there is all the time in the world to come to a decision on the budget resolution. The truth is that the congressional time schedule for getting over all the procedural hurdles to set funding levels for the next year is tight even when things are moving smoothly. This year Congress has been stuck at the first hurdle three weeks past its statutory deadline. Among the casualties of this procrastination is the sensible treatment of a number of 1980 decisions. Temporary rescue of the food stamp program last month was managed only after great pressure was brought to bear on a Congress that had known for eight months the money was needed. Now black lung benefits, federal unemployment benefits and disaster relief are about to run out.
In addition, Congress has not bothered to take action on a set of recommendations that would lower spending in 1980. There are $1.5 billion worth of 1980 "recisions" proposed by President Carterd in March -- requests to eliminate some money already appropriated for this fiscal year. The idea of lowering 1980 costs should be appealing to conservatives, even if they would rearrange where the cuts were taken. The House Appropriations Committee has been ready to recommend some as soon as the budget resolution is set. Unfortunately, the clock appears to have run: the 45-day deadline for congressional action after the president proposes a recision falls today, and neither house has gotten to these questions. Without agreement by Congress, the president is obliged to spend the money. So much for saving money in 1980.
We realize that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish symbol from reality in the capital. But increasingly the compulsion to create a symbolically perfect 1981 budget resolution is getting in the way of any efficiencies in the gritty realities of running the government. Congress should get on with it.