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Budget cutting and undercutting

President Reagan and House Speaker O'Neill didn't quite each the point of yelling, "My dad was poorer than your dad." But their flap over who better understands the lot of working people echoes a new friction between White House and Congress that has childish as well as warning aspects. Some people on each side seem to be getting prickly in a lapse from the more genial mood of the earlier controversy and compromise leading to a strong budget-cutting resolution. The respective antagonists ought to take a look at themselves to see whether they are contributing to the problem. There is too much important legislation pending for it to be undercut by continued hard feelings.

The recent turbulence has been precipitated by the House committees' folow- through with specific budget cuts to meet the $36 billion agreed to in the resolution. The total was attained but in ways permitting the administration to allege all kinds of mischief, including some social-service slashes so severe as to make even the Reagan approach seem magnanimous -- and to ensure their defeat on the House floor. At the same time, the committees were slipping in violations of administration priorities. For example, instead of eliminating all $3.8 billion for CETA public service jobs, as the Senate obediently did, the House cut only $2.8 billion.

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When confronted with their sins, some congressmen displayed a wounded innocence worthy of someone who couldn't imagine a political interpretation being placed on such high-minded endeavors. And, to be fair, credit must be given to House committee members, whether or not opposed to the Reagan program, who made a good-faith effort to comply with the budget demands. There may be genuine concern for the democratic process as well as politics in the protests by some against White House attempts to make an end run around all the committee work with different legislation submitted directly on the floor.

Rules Committee chairman Richard Bolling, often a critic of Congress's own operatons, has the credentials to be listened to when he says that there has never before been an administration that "has demanded to dictate so completely to the Congress." He cites a mushrooming of White House ambitions, such as trying to lock in legislative orders for years ahead, that may not be fully conscious but that could take away most of the functions of Congress. He warns that destroying flexibility may win short-term victories but could doom programs in the future.

How much of the present Washington mood is due to a Congrss making the transition from asserting itself in the post-imperial- presidency years to taking its place beside an executive determined to be at least an equal branch of government? Can there be any doubt that President Reagan should be free to use any legitimate means at his disposal to press his programs through Congress? Can there be any doubt that Congress should be free to exercise its rights and prerogatives as well? But let's not lose the good feelings that can oil the machinery for the good of all.

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