DEFICIT: TIME TO ACT

WITH THE ECONOMY BUMPING ALONG a slow-growth course that sometimes alarms and

rarely inspires, there is one big thing the government can do to help - cut the budget deficit.

That is not a new idea, nor a magic formula. It is almost uniformly recommended as the most important step our leaders can take.The call rings out from the halls of Congress, is the watchword of administration officials and Federal Reserve governors, springs from the lips of private experts and stands out in communiques of industrial nations.

Now, it is time for some action. Hand out the pledge cards and get the commitments. Don't waste time.

Of course, much more time will be needed to produce a final budget. But key lawmakers should set their basic positions, and the administration should start talking with them to develop a satisfactory budget framework.

Some groundwork has been laid. As Congress has been moving toward achievable budget targets and floating trial balloons for new revenues, the president has chosen a chief of staff who knows how to strike a deal.

Previously, the administration told Congress to produce its own alternative budget before any negotiations, and budget committees are aiming for mid-March to do just that. Even a preliminary, quiet accord with the White House before then could help prevent needless antagonism.

It has been two months since the Reagan administration handed Congress the first budget plans for fiscal 1988. That time has been full: of more budget books, trade proposals, confrontational legislation, the State of the Union address, the Tower report and a White House shake-up.

Even if other events had not intruded, Congress needed this period to study budget proposals and develop a consensus.

By now the economic challenges should be clear. The role of the budget deficit in trade, interest rates, foreign capital and sluggish growth have been examined again and again.

Experts see the economy mired in sluggish growth, and volatile economic reports add to a sense of fragility.

A budget accord would instill confidence. It would put the burden on major allies to meet their pledges. It would give the Fed - which is keeping a close watch on inflation - more room to assure that economic growth continues.

An early accord would avoid much-wasted effort, deflate what could be a bruising fight over the May 15 debt limit deadline and provide welcome security to the economy.

The sooner the better. Rather than fight it out over the next few months before deciding the main budget issues, Congress and the administration should agree quickly on the main points and go from there.

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