IF ALL goes according to plan, the House will begin voting today on the first budget resolution for the coming fiscal year. Adoption of the administration's budget, represented in the House by the amendment to be offered by Rep. Phil Gramm and Rep. Delbert Latta, would be a major symbolic victory for the president over the Democratic leadership of the House. While the first budget resolution is not a definitive settlement, the agreement will set the terms for the battles that will be fought throughout the next months in the authorization and appropriation committees and, again, in the budget committees when the second budget resolution is considered next fall.
In an important sense, the administration has already carried the day for its policy of social spending restraint. When you calculate what the Democratic alternative drafted by the House Budget Committee and the Gramm-Latta proposals will cost, the actual difference in total spendingd, even projected over three years, amounts to a relative drop in the bucket. And it is also true that the budget cuts being considered -- about $37 billion under Gramm-Latta -- are small in gross economic terms. They represent about 5 percent of the total budget and only a little more than 1 percent of next year's gross national product. The defense budget is no longer a real issue between the two parties, and the federal deficit will not be determined until the fate of the administration's taxcut proposals is decided -- a matter still very much at issue.
The air of sham battle that all this may suggest to some, however, is misleading. Much more than symbolism is at stake. For while the budget cuts are not large in abstract economic terms, they are very large when measured against the needs of some of the areas and people most likely to be affected. The major items of federal expense -- defense, basic Social Security retirement and disability benefits, Medicare and veteran's benefits -- have been put off-limits by the administration. Interest on the federal debt must be paid. This leaves less than a third of the budget to absorb the full impact of the proposed cuts.
The budget rush has left very little for studying the real meaning of many of the changes in both levels of spending and, in some cases, program conditions that would, in practical effect, be compelled by the Gramm-Latta amendments. Some of the proposals embedded in the spending limits for individual committees have consequences that go far beyond the relatively small dollar amounts involved. Legal aid for the poor, job and training help for poor youth and welfare mothers, food assistance for children, aid to chronically distressed areas -- these are things that are basic to the country's notions of mutual obligation and important parts of a commitment to the future.
The Democratic leadership of the House has associated itself with an expenditure level that will require budgetry discipline about equal to that proposed by the administration. It has, however, preserved in the terms of its budget resolution a measure of flexibility that can be of great importance to Congress and the administration in the coming months as they decide how best to distribute the burden of sacrifice.