Budget, budget, who has the budget? The president has one. The House adopted one back in April, before the Easter recess. And the Senate finally managed to pass a budget resolution just before Memorial Day. So the answer is: everyone has one; but the country has none.

Three budgets are the same as none. How do we get from three to one? House and Senate conferees are trying to reach a compromise. The president does not have to sign a budget resolution. But the White House position will have a major impact on Congress' ability to reach an agreement.

Some say it doesn't really matter whether Congress passes a budget. They argue that the president can control spending by exercising his veto power on individual appropriations actions.

Others say no budget at all is better than one that cuts spending for their favorite programs--or raises taxes--more than they would like.

Then there is a group that would like the budget process to go away altogether. These are people who don't like voting for deficits. (And who can remember a budget that didn't include a deficit?) They don't like the orders--called reconciliation instructions--contained in most recent budget resolutions, which require Congress to save money in permanent non- discretionary programs (including the huge entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare, veterans programs, pensions and agricultural subsidies). And this year many dislike the prospect of reconciliation instructions that may require Congress to raise revenues, as well as cut spending, to reduce the deficit.

But it was the persistent failure of Congress through its regular committee system to address the need for restraint, and the accompanying need for restructuring of priorities, which made necessary a budget- reconciliation process in the first place.

Many believe the budget committees have become too powerful. They would like to return to a world in which individual authorizing and spending committees "did their own thing."

But we believe in limits. Even if the budget does not go as far as we would like to reduce the deficit, we believe that some restraint is better than none. And restraint is the issue.

Without a budget, spending will continue to rise inexorably. The president may veto some individual appropriations bills, and he may make those vetoes stick. But that strategy cannot affect the 75 percent of the budget that can't be controlled through the regular annual appropriations process. Without a budget--without reconciliation--entitlement spending will continue to grow.

And sooner or later, the president and Congress will have to agree to provide money to keep the government in business. Even if that comes in the form of a continuing resolution at the end of the year, Congress will have to pass a bill the president will sign. And unless they first agree on some spending limits, the totals in that bill will be far higher than they will be if the House, the Senate and the administration work out their differences this month.

What is a budget, after all? It is a plan for raising and spending money. It is an opportunity to look at all programs, and at all revenue options, in one place at one time. The effect of putting it all together is to force our elected representatives to recognize the impact of all their decisions on the economy. That is why the deficit number has become so politically important.

And that is how we got a budget process in the first place. In the old days, Congress would pass appropriations bills, tax bills, entitlement legislation--all piecemeal. No one knew what it all added up to until after the fiscal year was over. There was no mechanism for Congress to decide that the total of all those bills was too high--and to order its committees to do something about it. There was nothing against which congressional actions could be measured in a timely manner.

We cannot afford to return now to that system. Our interest bill is nearly $100 billion a year--almost half of what we will spend on defense this year. Unless there are changes in law--to cut spending and/or to raise taxes--we face $200 billion deficits for as far as the eye can see. And those deficits will surely doom this economic recovery.

Nobody wants that, certainly not our political leaders. Everybody wants prosperity. But prosperity has its price. And today that price includes some very difficult budgetary decisions. Refusing to make those decisions, or putting them off, is a bad gamble. And we cannot afford to gamble with our economic well-being.

That is why the budget coference is so important. House and Senate conferees, and the president, have legitimate differences--on policy and on politics. But those differences cannot be allowed to stand in the way of an agreement. After all, everyone involved has the same ultimate objective: government policies that lead to a strong economy and a strong nation. For that they deserve all our support. The goal is too important for them to fail.