The budget director seems to be in better shape than the budget on Capitol Hill these days.
When Office of Management and Budget Director David A. Stockman came stiffly out of President Reagan's "woodshed" last fall, the conventional wisdom was that he was too battered to carry another controversial spending plan through Congress.
But now the intense young former congressman is back at the witness table, and while no longer perhaps a maker of magic, he is for the moment at least surviving, which is more than can be said for the plan itself.
In hours of testimony last month, Stockman faced snipers rather than firing squads, with most Democrats--and many Republicans--zeroing in more heavily on the budget than its bearer.
His embarrassing admissions in a magazine article last year that the fiscal 1982 budget was not all it was cracked up to be, which provoked the spanking from Reagan, were generally less at issue than what Reagan now wants Congress to do for fiscal 1983.
Stockman was helped by the fact that committee members grilling him knew that he had earlier fought unsuccessfully for many of the budget revisions that they also want, and they welcomed his conciliatory gestures on these points. "We know that if he had been running the show, he wouldn't have put together those kinds of policies," said House Budget Committee Chairman James R. Jones (D-Okla.) the other day.
Moreover, time has confirmed some of his misgivings about the 1982 budget.
"People realize that what he said was true," said a House Republican who asked not to be quoted by name. "He just took thousands of words to say what Sen. Baker (Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee) said in a couple of words: it was a 'riverboat gamble.' "
But this does not add up to total redemption, according to friends as well as foes.
Not only has Stockman not fully recovered from the interview's damage to his credibility, they say, but his defeats in some internal White House struggles over the budget have undermined his stature as the undisputed voice of the administration on budget policy.
Recurrent rumors about his imminent departure, although denied by both Stockman and White House aides, have further eroded his clout on Capitol Hill, some legislators add.
Reagan is described by aides as one of Stockman's strongest defenders at the White House, and Stockman's associates say he gives no signs of wanting to leave. Republican lawmakers say they believe he will stay at least through the initial budget scrimmaging this spring. But many say they would not be surprised at a departure, voluntary or otherwise, at any time.
"There have to be rewards and, to go through what he has to go through, they have to be big," said a well-placed House Republican aide. "This spring there's no fun in it at all." Said another GOP aide: "He's a lame duck, and lame ducks don't fly very high."
According to some influential congressional budgeteers, all of this means Stockman is now less of a "finance minister," as Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) uncharitably puts it, and more of a traditional budget numbers man.
"Last year there was not much question that Stockman was leading the pack, but that's not the way it is now," said Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Calif.), an influential Democrat on the House Budget Committee, in assessing Stockman's standing with Congress.
Having failed to convince Reagan to lower the deficit by trimming defense spending and increasing taxes, "he is simply presenting numbers from a policy made by others, and he doesn't have the influence to change or modify that policy," added Panetta.
The irony, Panetta suggested, is that Stockman may be surviving on Capitol Hill in part because he no longer matters as much as he once did. "He's not the villain of the piece because he's not the author; he didn't put it the budget together," said Panetta.
Rep. Delbert L. Latta (R-Ohio), ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee, agrees that Stockman is no longer the "chief spokesman" on overall budget policy. "David," said Latta in something of an overstatement, "speaks when spoken to."
If this means Stockman has been returned to the more traditional role of a budget director, shorn of broader responsibilities for economic policy, "that's what it should be," said Kemp, an erstwhile Stockman ally who bristles at Stockman's lack of faith in tax cuts as the route to economic salvation.
While denying reports that he favors Stockman's departure, Kemp said "he should stay as the budget director," with emphasis on the last three words, meaning Stockman should stick with numbers, not try to influence policy.
Even if he is no longer larger than life, Stockman is seen as irreplaceable by many Republicans and even some Democrats, not only because of his budget brilliance and knowledge of the congressional power levers but also because he has shown more flexibility than most administration officials, including the president.
Describing Stockman as the administration's "single most credible source" on the budget, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) called on Stockman at a hearing recently to use what influence he has to turn the president around on the budget. "We can't afford three presidents in a row to be abject failures," said Biden.
"He's more flexible than anyone else . . . and that's going to be very important" in working out a budget compromise between the White House and congressional Republicans, said a key Senate GOP staff member. "David's very knowledgeable about what is achievable," said Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), grinning broadly.
If it comes to compromise, Stockman's role is likely to grow again, if for no other reason than his budget expertise, which is almost universally acknowledged as encyclopedic and unrivaled. "There is simply not anyone else who could do the job," said a House Republican.
Is his credibility so damaged that he would again become a lightning rod for the entire budget storm? Opinions vary.
"Those of us who deal with him regularly appreciate his intellect and flexibility but, as for the rest, they just look at him as a guy who misled them and can't deliver," said House Budget Chairman Jones.
"There's a little bit of sympathy for the guy . . . to his credit he accepted the blame," said Rep. Paul Simon (D-Ill.). A House leadership staffer makes a similar point: "People in this profession tend to be more sympathetic to a colleague in trouble." Moreover, he added, "memories are short around here."
"Credibility flows from knowledge, not rhetoric," said Republican Regula. But he still "has a large credibility problem with Congress as a whole," said Democrat Jones.
Senate Budget Committee member Dan Quayle (R-Ind.) believes Stockman is "over the hump" as far as the credibility problem is concerned. But Quayle sees another problem in Stockman's future:
"If the budget fails, everyone will be looking for a scapegoat."