Carrying budget documents the size of a New York telephone book, reporters stagger out of the annual budget briefing. They lug away statistical tables that not only reflect the parlous state of the domestic and world economies, but feed the growing debate over what's to be done about them.
Today the problem is global.
Distribution of the administration's budget is like the kickoff in an extended football game. It may involve Congress, the White House - and the nation - in huddles, strategies, and fourth-down dilemmas for the rest of the year.
And now, more than ever, domestic issues are intertwined with foreign ones. For example:
* How much should the administration budget for defense while nuclear arms negotiations resume in Geneva?
* What should the government set aside for social amelioration at home with 10.8 percent unemployment and each 1 percent rise in unemployment adding $25 billion to a bulging federal deficit that worries not only our own financial community but those abroad as well?
* What, if anything, should the US do to ease world recession, when developing countries owe half a trillion dollars to foreign creditors and when, for example, loans by the nine largest US banks to Mexico and Brazil alone just about equal the banks' total reserves and capital?
The budget instrument by which policies like these are hammered out often amazes the rest of the world. In Great Britain the government presents its budget to the House of Commons, which customarily passes it in a week or two. A major change in it by the opposition would bring a new election.
When President Reagan first tangled with the US process in May 1981, he called it ''the most irresponsible, Mickey Mouse arrangement'' he'd ever seen. The procedure grows out of the American system of divided powers. The executive, elected for a fixed term, sends its proposed fiscal blueprint to Congress, which may be dominated by the opposition party.
A new system was introduced in 1974. For the first time a unified budget, attempting to balance expenditures with receipts, was required. Everyone agrees it hasn't worked very well. What surprises some people is that it works at all. With Congress unable to agree on the President's budget (or a compromise version of its own), the Legislature has repeatedly carried on the business of the world's wealthiest nation on a so-called continuing resolution. This means that members agree to disagree.