The Reagan administration has long described the federal government as a bloated monolith to be pried off people's backs.
But President Reagan's controversial new budget paints a slightly different picture. Instead of a single entity, the government for budget purposes is split into parts -- entitlement programs, defense, interest payments on the federal debt, and everything else. Entitlements and defense are escaping unscathed. Interest on the national debt is a fixed cost. So reducing bloat means slashing at the 38 percent of the government that falls under ''everything else.''
The result, writes the President in his budget message, would be an ''asymmetrical pattern of growth'' with some programs growing while others are held constant or cut back -- as much ''a reordering of fiscal policy'' as a reduction in overall size.
And it isn't only the size that's annoying Mr. Reagan. So are federal regulations. Even liberals say an explosion of regulations has made Washington too nosy. Both the new budget and Reagan's economic report go to great lengths to document what they call ''reduction of federal intrusion.''
''Some of this rebellion has nothing to do with government's size,'' says economist Walter Heller, Council of Economic Advisers chairman from 1961-64. ''The pervasiveness of government's presence is not necessarily related to expenditures.''
Despite talk about ''slash'' and ''cut,'' the US government is not getting much smaller. If the President's budget passes, Washington would spend $32 billion more in FY '83 than it did in 1982. What is being cut is the rate of growth. In 1980, the budget increased 17.4 percent. Under the new budget, it would grow 4.5 percent in '83.
''That is below the expected inflation rate, which means that in real terms, federal spending is declining,'' said Mr. Stockman in a congressional appearance.
But in the new budget, defense spending increases 15 percent and entitlements stay roughly equal. All restraint falls on the budget slice labeled ''other nondefense.'' It is this reordering of priorites, as much as the actual size of the cuts, that has sparked the heated debate about Reagan's '83 budget.