AFTER TAKING a break during the Memorial Day recess, House and Senate conferees will begin bargaining this week on the terms of a congressional budget resolution that would govern taxes, spending--and hence the deficit--over the next few years. There are substantial differences between the resolutions passed by each of the houses. But the chances for agreement would be relatively good were it not likely that the White House will insist on conditions that impede compromise.
The Senate narrowly avoided an impasse when a coalition of legislators from both parties succeeded in passing a resolution that included a smaller defense increase, more taxes and more domestic spending than President Reagan wants. In one sense the Senate succeeded too well. Its resolution already looks very much like what the House thought it would ultimately agree to. It calls for $11 billion more in domestic spending than the president wants, a 5 percent rather than 10 percent increase in defense spending, and $9 billion in additional taxes next year--about all the House could reasonably expect to pass.
That leaves the House conferees calling for several billion dollars more in domestic spending-- which would never pass the Senate--and very little to demand from Senate conferees in return for backing off their position. This dilemma wouldn't be insoluble if the president were ready to provide leadership for a real bipartisan agreement in the House as well as the Senate. But that doesn't seem to be the case.
The president has made clear his disdain for Congress' attempts to control the deficit if it doesn't do it his way. And he has strong reservations about some important items on which both houses of Congress already agree. One is the matter of boosting taxes. Even if the House accedes to the Senate on a lower tax figure for next year, both houses agree that about $50 billion in additional revenues will be needed by 1986 if there is to be even a pretense of controlling future deficits. The president's budget also called for about the same increase in 1986--but in the form of a "contingency" tax to take effect only if Congress accepts his domestic budget cuts.
There is no support, however, for the president's domestic cuts--in either house or either party--and one can wonder whether Mr. Reagan would really be happy going into the 1984 election with some of these cuts on his record. This situation gives rise to the suspicion that the president only included the contingency tax in his budget to make his "out year" deficits look somewhat less terrifying. If Mr. Reagan intends to campaign against the tax increase called for in the resolution on the grounds that neither house has met his domestic budget mark, House liberals will see little incentive to compromise on domestic spending.
The president cannot persuade either house to pass his own budget, but he can hinder congressional attempts to secure a real measure of future budget control. Congress may be able to settle on a resolution to get it through next year--since an enormous deficit for 1984 is already a foregone conclusion. But, with an election year approaching, that will not provide any assurance that the government is ready to start getting its fiscal house in order.