In coming down on the side of only modest cuts in the $1.5 trillion Pentagon defense plan projected through 1985 President Reagan is perhaps taking the biggest gamble of his administration to date. The issue was never one of letting defense outlays fall below what are needed to maintain the security of the United States. What has been and is now at issue is quite simply whether the Reagan administration can have the massive military buildup that it envisions and still succeed with its overall economic recovery policies. In opting for a $13 billion cut over three years -- instead of the $20 billion to $ 30 bilion called for by some administration officials -- the administration may be jeopardizing its entire economic program.
Mr. Reagan, who has repeatedly proven his ability to sense the mood of Congress and the American public, surely cannot but be concerned when an astute conservative lawmaker from his own Republican Party says that "a majority of the Congress are looking for larger cuts" in planned military spending than that proposed by the administration. And when that senator also happens to be the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee --as is Sen. Pete Domenici -- then it is clear that the White House has its work cut out for it in defnending its minuscule (2 percent) Pentagon cuts and in coming up with big slashes in nondefense expenditures.
The problem, simply put, is dollars. The administration must find $75 billion in budget cuts for the three years through fiscal year 1984 to realize Mr. Reagan's promise of a balanced budget by that year. So far, with the proposed defense cuts it has found $13 billion, leaving an additional $62 billion yet to be found.
Continuing high interest rates, however, reflect Wall Street's nagging doubts that a balanced budget can be achieved. Those same sky-high interest rates are already slowing the economy to a crawl -- further exacerbating the difficulty of bringing the economy under control and ending the debilitating stagflation of recent years.
Assuming that the administration holds the line on modest defense reductions where then will the additional $62 billion or so in cuts come from? From civil projects and social programs, of course. The congressional battle over the $35 billion in cuts from the fiscal 1982 budget was a wrenching ordeal. But that will likely be minor compared to the hard choices now facing the administration and lawmakers as they bring the budget snipping shears to the fiscal 1983 and 1984 budgets. And there is a larger question of equity here as well. To what extent should the poorer and less advantaged elements of society -- as well as much of the middle class that will now begin to be directly affected by upcoming slashes in entitlement programs -- bear the "economizing burden" now required by Americans in the 1980s to bring the national fiscal house back into order?
Further questions also must be raised. Do the modest trims mean the controversial and enormously expensive MX missile system has gotten the green light from the White House, despite the doubts of many military experts that it is needed? Is Mr. Reagan somehow taking his current "guns but minimal-butter" stance on budget cuts as a way of holding the more hard-line core of his political constituency intact, while letting lawmakers -- such as Mr. Domenici -- take the lead in finding additional Pentagon cuts? Past administrations have been known to engage in such cloakroom politics. Whatever the case, Mr. Reagan would seem to be still ignoring the model of the most successful Republican administration of recent years, the Eisenhower administration.
As President Eisenhower correctly perceived, the nation's "defense" is inescapably intertwined with the health and prosperity of its economy. Strong defense, yes. But surely, given the very magnitude of the proposed Pentagon budget the administration can find more than $13 billion in cuts. Finding those deeper cuts, as suggested by Senator Domenici, goes to the very long-range wellbeing of the nation.