CONGRESS IS beginning its own search for a safe and sensible way out of the tight fiscal corner into which it backed during the administration's tax and budget blitz last summer. Neither the Senate nor the House seems prepared to rely solely on the administration for further guidance. In the House this week, a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans voted an appropriations bill for social programs that rejected $3.5 billion of the additional cuts the administration is seeking for this year. In the Senate, the Republican leadership is developing a budget alternative apparently calling for higher taxes, less defense and more social spending than the administration now wants.
This is not an unhealthy sign. With an enormous deficit looming in 1983 and 1984, Congress cannot afford a return to the fiscal irresponsibility of earlier years. But Congress has good reasons to proceed cautiously. One is the need to find out more about the real impact of the budget cuts it has already made before deciding to add more in the same areas. This means talking to governors, mayors and constituents about what's beginning to happen to different regions and institutions and people. These consultations are likely to suggest that any further cuts will require much finer surgery and a good deal more concern for the fiscal and constituent pressures now focused on other levels of government.
Congress also has reason to be cautious about striking any further interim deals with the administration. In agreeing to the budget reconciliation package last July, the members thought they had saved certain programs--Conrail and Amtrak aid, low-income housing weatherization, youth job programs and family planning, for example--from the drastic cuts or extinction the administration had sought in March. Last month, however, the administration proposed additional "12 percent across- the-board" reductions for this year that simply ignored these changes and returned to its original March plan as a base. The result is that many programs would face cuts in the range of 30 percent this year, and some would be wiped out completely.
Congress should also take the time it didn't take last summer to consider where it is heading the nation for the next few years. Certainly there is reason to doubt that the administration has thought through its own plan. If finding a mere $16 billion in additional cuts for this year required so much last- minute fumbling, where is the plan for the much larger cuts or tax increases that will be needed to balance the budget by 1984?
No one can accurately predict the path of federal revenues and projections over the next few years. There are simply too many economic uncertainties involved. But it is fair and prudent for Congress to ask now exactly how the administration plans to deal with certain broad contingencies. If deficits in the range of $50, $75 or even $100 billion appear likely in 1983 and 1984, what sorts of budget cuts or tax increases will the administration propose?
The timetable for the president's 1983 budget calls for final decisions over the next three months. By now the administration should have some concrete ideas about the next moves in its economic game plan. If the administration wants to counteract the damaging perception that it is really just making up its strategy as it goes along, it should be willing to show a few more of the cards in its hand.