WASHINGTON'S SO-CALLED "deficit-reduction" program has been in place only a couple of months, and already it is becoming frayed around the edges.
The buildup of more than 400,000 American troops in the Persian Gulf is estimated to cost an extra $31 billion, with the ultimate cost unknown. A long war could mean the abandonment of all thought of reducing the deficit. A tax surcharge has been proposed to pay for the operation.
Amid the hectic budget negotiations on Capitol Hill in October, the dollars available for domestic programs were miscalculated by billions. Congress has already approved plans that would put spending over the agreed ceiling and now must think of austerity measures.
The nation now appears to be in a recession, which was not part of the economic assumptions when the budget compromise was reached. This could add billions more to the deficit.
The budget agreement was a step forward. Without it, the deficit would be $40 billion higher in the current fiscal year and even worse in future years.
But it now looks as if all those savings -- laboriously scraped together only after months of bitter in-fighting -- will be rapidly used up in the Persian Gulf.
Already it is apparent that the estimate of a record $253 billion deficit for the 1991 fiscal year could be optimistic. And it should be remembered that the official deficit figures include the surpluses that are being built up in the Social Security trust fund. Without the Social Security figures, the projected federal deficits for 1991 and 1992 will be well over $300 billion.
Despite all this red ink in the nation's future, the situation is not hopeless. The factors causing much of the trouble -- the Persian Gulf crisis, the recession and the costly bailout of the savings and loan industry -- will not last forever. The current fiscal year and the next one may show horrendous deficits, but after that the long-term plan of the budget compromise should bring the deficits down.
Unless there is a real war in the gulf -- and there shouldn't be -- Congress should be able to abide by the spending ceilings on domestic and military spending.
The Iraq crisis should not be allowed to cancel the nation's "peace dividend." The crisis shows that our armed forces should be geared for such regional conflicts rather than nuclear war with a superpower.
Our stupendously costly arsenal of 10,000 nuclear warheads is now being pared down by agreement with the Soviet Union, and many more savings can be made in the future.
In the 1980s, the United States doubled its military spending in an arms race with a nation that was on the point of disintegration. In the era ahead, the main race will be economic, and we must get our economic house in order to be able to compete.