SEN. ROBERT DOLE has called for a "budget summit" between President Reagan and leaders of both houses of Congress. The senator, whose Finance Committee is charged with producing most of the deficit reductions called for in the congressional budget resolution, observed that it is time for the president to "get involved" in the budget process.
The notion that a chief executive might not be involved in the federal budget may strike you as curious. But apart from an occasional exhortation to the players to abide by his preferred set of rules, this president has, in fact, retired from the budget game. In responding to Sen. Dole's summit call, White House spokesman Larry Speakes said the chore of getting the budget in order ought to be accomplished in Congress because "that's where the problem is."
This contention deserves further inspection. Let's assume, for the moment, that the economy runs on all cylinders between now and 1986 so that unemployment has gotten down to a respectable 6 percent. How big would the federal deficit still be? If you assume that the defense buildup continues at the administration's pace and that other programs stay more or less constant, it will still be somewhere around $155 billion and growing. If the economy falls short of that roseate projection, the deficit will be larger still.
In short, federal spending and revenues would be more than $150 billion out of whack even after three years of strong growth. How did they get that way? Some other statistics suggest the answer. Under present law, for example, federal taxes in that same year, 1986, would be approximately $150 billion less than they would have been without the Reagan tax cuts. Under the same assumptions, annual defense spending, at roughly $320 billion, would be about $160 billion more than in the president's first year in office. Social Security would be in good shape, and total spending on nonentitlement domestic programs-- everything from the court systems to the Coast Guard --would have shrunk slightly to about $150 billion.
Obviously the budget is out of balance not because Congress ignored the president's wishes, but because, in voting for both defense increases and tax cuts, it followed them. Now Mr. Reagan wants to leave Congress with the ugly job of raising taxes to put them more in line with spending. This is not something Congress is equipped to do without strong presidential leadership.
Congress has done the best it can in producing a budget resolution that would cut the built-in deficit by about half. But, as Sen. Dole has made clear, even that progress--not to mention the further domestic cuts that the president wants--won't be possible unless the president puts his full strength behind another budget and tax package. Right now the president is disinclined. Perhaps another rise in interest rates will pique his interest.