CONGRESSIONAL leaders are now preparing to do what the administration has not done-- provide the country with a sensible budget strategy to assist economic recovery. This is an important first step, but it by no means guarantees that the budget process will be rescued from stalemate--a prospect of truly devastating consequence for public and business confidence.
The several budget plans that have now been suggested by congressional leaders in both parties and houses differ in detail and degree. Much remains to be specified and debated. All the plans, however, start from three general premises: 1) The proposed increases in real defense spending are neither justified by strategic considerations, nor within the capacity of the defense industry to use effectively in producing armaments over the next few years. 2) Both the individual and business tax cuts passed last summer need reconsideration, especially the large cuts planned for future years. 3) The large middle-class entitlement programs that now dominate the domestic budget must take their fair share of further budget cuts.
These three general areas of agreement have one thing in common--they are all political hot potatoes. Congressional Republicans have had their backs stiffened by the frightening prospect of large losses in next fall's elections if the economy doesn't stage a substantial recovery fairly soon. But it is unrealistic to expect them--much less the Democrats --to coalesce behind a more balanced budget program without strong, visible leadership from the White House.
The administration may prefer to be dragged protesting toward needed revisions in its programs. This is a strategy that Mr. Reagan frequently used when, as California's governor, he allowed the Democratic-controlled legislature to respond to social and economic needs that didn't fit with his political views. But the present situation calls for a more active executive role. Congress lacks the strong leadership necessary to take on difficult political issues on its own. And the stakes in the national policy game are much higher.
President Reagan cannot complain about the support he got from Congress last year in enacting his economic program. Now that the need is apparent, he owes more to Congress--and the country--than a grudging acceptance of corrections in those policies. The president can't expect rescue by a divided Congress. Without his active participation, the whole difficult process of budget revision will come to a halt. That will do real damage to the president's economic plans--as well as to everyone else's.