THE NEW BUDGET "framework" on which the president and House Democrats are said to have agreed is not so much a solution as a restatement of the problem. The president protected the elements of the budget he most cares about. The defense buildup would continue at the rate of inflation and there would be no tax increase. The Democrats also protected what they most wanted to: there would be no cut in this year's cost-of-living increase in Social Security benefits. But that means all other domestic programs would have to bear the remaining burden of reducing the deficit, and it is not clear that they can.
Nor is it clear that members of either party in Congress have the will to cut these programs in the depth that would be required to bring the deficit down to acceptable levels. Certainly the Democrats do not. In this sense they may have boxed themselves in. The choice left by the new framework is where to inflict the damage: on these programs or on the economy as a whole.
What the president and the Democrats would do is to put about two thirds of the budget off limits. The budget next fiscal year will be in the neighborhood of a trillion dollars. About 30 percent will be for defense and 20 percent for Social Security. Another 15 percent will go for interest on the debt. That leaves most of the programs but only about a third of the dollars in which to make cuts. Nor are all of these cuttable. More than $16 billion will be paid next year in unemployment benefits; the unemployment rate is still over 7 percent.
This residual third of the budget is also where almost all the previous Reagan cutting was done. The easier targets are already gone, and some of the large programs trimmed in the past have been put out of bounds. The budget conferees had already agreed to make no further cuts in most welfare programs. That adds even more to the pressure on the programs that remain.
Partly to ease this pressure, Senate conferees of both parties had proposed a very different framework. In this as in each of the last several years, the Senate has produced most of the leadership on the budget issue, mediating between the president and the House. The new proposal, drawn up by Sens. Lawton Chiles and Slade Gorton, was for each side to yield to those positions of the other that would do the most to reduce the deficit. The president would yield on taxes and defense (where he had already given considerable ground), and the House would yield on Social Security. Instead, the opposite happened, and each side chose to protect its chosen turf.
There has been a grievous failure of will. Sooner or later if the deficit is not reduced, interest rates will start back up. That will choke the economy. Incomes will fall, and unemployment will rise again. It is a high price to pay. The president is back where he likes to be, focusing pressure on the domestic programs he is determined to shrink. The Democrats are also where they like to be, saving Social Security. Each side has avoided the other's traps. The Democrats cannot be called tax-and-spend; the president is not cutting old- age benefits. But they are courting the whirlwind.