During the recent congressional budget fight, there occurred a verifiable sighting of something the Democrats have been frantically in search of since being run out of office in 1980: an authentic new idea. It was California Rep. George Miller's "pay-as-you-go" budget plan, which won the support of four-fifths of voting House Democrats, but not House passage.

Upon closer scrutiny, some of those House Democrats might not have been so enthusiastic about the budget plan with the attractive label. Miller, a fourth-term liberal with an independent streak, proposed that Congress freeze all federal spending at the 1982 level and only allow itself to increase any spending program--Medicare or MX--by first coming up with the revenues to pay for that increase. Those new revenues could be obtained either by cutting other existing programs or by increasing taxes. Those are the only two options. No more rigged projections of rosy revenue increases in 1988, thank you. Miller allows for no exemptions from the freeze. Social Security, too, would be subject to the pay-as-you-go formula.

Unlike the administration's 1981 tax-cut plan, which promised instant and ouchless prosperity by next Tuesday, the Miller plan offers some political pain, especially for his congressional and party colleagues. No longer would members of Congress--of both parties--be able to finance their favorite untouchable programs through the federal deficit. Congress would be required to make real choices among competing interests and constituencies. Republicans who have simultaneously favored big defense spending boosts and big tax cuts would be exposed, just as quickly as those "no-choice" Democrats who have appeared constitutionally incapable of saying no to any appropriations scheme remotely mentioning "old" or "small." What Miller is suggesting is nothing less than a congressional vertebrae transplant, without benefit of anaesthetic.

Acording to the Congressional Budget Office, alone of all the budget proposals, the pay-as-you-go plan would have produced a federal budget surplus of $27 billion by 1985. Furthermore, as its sponsor conceded, the plan would "put politics back on the floor of the House. I want to find out what Republicans--and Democrats--are really willing to pay for," says Miller.

To the criticism that pay-as-you-go would not allow for any future economic stimulus through planned public deficits, the Californian responds: "A $4 billion program may mean something when the debt is $10 billion, but not when our annual deficit is $140 billion."