FAILURE AT THE OMB

THINGS ARE LOOKING UP for the Reagan administration. The president's television address, plus the appointment of Howard Baker as White House chief of staff and the nomination of William Webster to head the Central Intelligence Agency, seem to have gone far in dispelling the notion of a president crippled physically and mentally.

They also seems to have changed the agenda. If the early polls are to be believed, the president well may have begun to put the Iran-contra affair behind him. In its place, he - and the Democrats - seem to be focusing on the budget and the deficit, certainly worthy topics for prime consideration.House Speaker Jim Wright, for the Democrats, is making no bones about the fact that he wants a tax hike of about $18 billion, to be matched by budget cuts of an equal amount, to reduce the deficit. Among the specifics being mentioned are an oil import fee, a gasoline tax, an increase in the telephone excise tax and higher cigarette and alcohol taxes, plus the stock transfer tax proposed by the speaker himself that is causing an uproar on Wall Street.

Republicans, for their part, are divided over whether to hold a budget ''summit." Its value in diverting attention from the Iran-contra affair is

unquestioned, but the president wants no part in a tax increase. And such experienced legislative hands as Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, the minority leader, and Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico say that holding such a meeting now would cost the president valuable leverage in working out an acceptable budget and deficit compromise.

Like the Iran-contra affair, the developing budget impasse focuses attention on the failure of the Reagan administration to address the job for which it has twice won a sizable mandate, reining in unchecked spending. The disappointment centers largely in Mr. Reagan's failure effectively to use the Office of Management and Budget.

The OMB is an executive agency. The director and staff work for the president. It is not just a budget office. It is a MANAGEMENT and budget office, meaning its role is to coordinate, to sort out conflicting claims of various interests, to minimize disruption at other federal agencies and to help the president reach out and build coalitions on Capitol Hill and in the nation.

The president allowed David Stockman, a former congressman, to treat the OMB as a one-man juggernaut. Jim Miller, his successor, brought a different sort of experience to the job. An academic who most recently came out of the Federal Trade Commission, a collegial body, he was regarded as a pragmatist who understood the need to build political consensus.

That was tough enough. But like Mr. Stockman before him, Mr. Miller appears not to be receiving direction from the White House. A case in point is the stunning congressional override of the president's veto of the Clean Water Act. Asked to explain the president's veto, Marlin Fitzwater, White House press spokesman, could only mumble about general budgetary considerations.

Here was a failure of the OMB. If the veto was because the president believed the Clean Water Act was bad environmental policy and bad economic policy, such arguments should have been made - arguments that could have been developed by the OMB.

Indeed, a 1981 Washington Post article detailed problems of an earlier clean water bill - gold-plating, waste, mismanagement and the tendency to drain watersheds and create greater environmental risks.

President Reagan often has been accused of being too political. In a positive sense he often has not been political enough. Congress, after all, deals in ideas. If the president's policies are to succeed, he must learn to market them - and to use the OMB in the role for which it is best suited.

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