THE NEW CONGRESS WILL HEAR much about budgets when it comes to town in January. From the administration, it will hear about the budget process - about two-year budgets, and capital budgets and line item vetoes and whatnot.
It will not hear quite so much about the budget itself - the spending that after six years of reductions still is running at 23 percent of gross national product - or the deficit that is projected in the $170 billion range for 1987, with those projections rising weekly.The 100th Congress should ignore all the debate about process and put the alternative budgeting questions on hold until it has dealt with the big question: How to reduce the projected federal deficit.
This year's Gramm-Rudman fiasco should be ample evidence that the process approach to fixing budget deficits doesn't work. The Reagan administration backed Gramm-Rudman when key Republicans made it the price of a debt ceiling bill. But the legislation didn't last a year before it was injured by a Supreme Court ruling and done in by a Congress and a president who wished they had never bought themselves a little time with Gramm-Rudman in the first place.
Now, White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan is pushing the idea of a federal capital budget. This would enable the federal government to "write off" long-term investments over several years, much as businesses do.
If Mr. Regan thinks this out, he will realize that such a budget process will open the doors for the most politicized budget debate ever. Which programs get categorized as long-term and which ones don't?
There's an even more interesting point. Capital items, to most economists' way of thinking, should be related to a stream of income. Can a guided missile frigate meet the test? How about payments to the unemployed? With most of the federal budget accounted for by defense expenditures and income transfers, very little would qualify as capital expenditures.
Congress has spent the last five years locked in a political debate over budget priorities, and a new procedure will not make possible the elusive compromise.
President Reagan and the 98th and 99th Congresses have shown themselves incapable of producing a mutually agreeable budget even within its one-year time frame. The 100th Congress, with its Democratic leadership in both chambers at odds with the White House on fiscal fundamentals, can ill afford a six-month debate over the right procedures to use.
It's crucial, for the economic well being of this country and for the
financial stability of future generations, that Congress keep its eye on the ball - the deficit. Any lengthy detour to a debate over form rather than substance is nothing more than a delaying game.