ONLY A FEW WEEKS remain until the administration unveils its budget proposals for fiscal year 1983, and the federal rumor mill is churning out stories of major attacks by the Office of Management and Budget on agency budgets and of minor recoupments by the embattled agencies. The details of this maneuvering are minor. The final outcome, however, is important. To maintain any impetus for its economic program, the administration must demonstrate that its next round of budget cuts is not just a further assault on weak constituencies, but is a coherent strategy for streamlining while preserving essential federal functions.
No such strategy can be discerned in the fragmentary reports of decisions made thus far. For example, the food and nutrition programs--the victims of almost a $4 billion reduction in basic services this year--are reported to be slated for additional cuts of almost $3 billion next year. If Congress is to be persuaded to accept a total cutback of roughly 40 percent in the various food and nutrition programs, a very convincing case will have to be made that the programs are inefficient or duplicative. That doesn't seem to be in the making.
Each of the several food programs serves a somewhat different purpose. Most of them also try to make up for the gross inadequacy of cash welfare payments in many places. Food stamps, for example, are the only federal aid available to all the poor, including the low-income working families who are now excluded from welfare in most parts of the country. The Women, Infants and Children Supplemental Feeding program (WIC) helps pregnant women and small children who are diagnosed by health clinics to have severe nutritional deficiencies --deficiencies unlikely to be met within the minimally adequate diet that food stamps can buy. School lunches serve not only the poor but middle- income children as well, a fact that is not only appreciated by many parents but is essential for efficient operation of the program.
Most of the administration's reported proposals are revivals of ideas considered--and rejected--by Congress during the past year. All of them would interact with benefit cuts already made or planned in other aid programs. The food stamp plan, for example, would cut allotments across the board--a particular hardship for welfare recipients in low benefit states. It would make sharp additional cuts in benefits for working families, the big losers in welfare and other programs. And it would further reduce benefits to persons, primarily the elderly, receiving help in paying fuel bills. Neither the Senate nor the House found merit in these ideas the last time. In the case of the WIC program, targeted for a one-third reduction, Congress specifically rejected a similar cut on five occasions and more or less told the administration not to try for it again.
If the administration's new budget relies heavily on failed proposals of the past year, Congress may begin to suspect that the proposals are simply ploys to force Congress to do what the president won't--take on some of the really tough programs and constituencies and raise taxes. Perhaps that's the best strategy that the administration, having painted itself into a very tight corner, can now come up with. But the risk of a stalemate in budget policy is substantial.