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Cheer up, old roll-top

Here are some musings from a roll-top desk. Start with the budget. Surely the United States is the only modern country, let alone the biggest one, that doesn't have a formal budget. There was no regular budget process till the 1974 act. Now that, too, may go: Congress and the President can't agree. The prospective deficits are staggering - they look like $200 billion a year.

Bringing the Treasury through huge deficits has become the normal state of things. With the exception of 1969 the US federal budget has had a deficit every year since 1960. Think of it; over 20 years. It illustrates the difference between America's divided government of checks and balances, and that of parliamentary systems. If Margaret Thatcher can't get her budget passed there is an election. Mr. Reagan has worked on his since Christmas and may go on all year.

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''America's fiscal disorder,'' says David P. Calleo (Johns Hopkins) writing in the current Political Science Quarterly, ''has contributed heavily to the world's inflation, unemployment, financial overextension, and general economic disorder of the past several years.'' Heigh ho; that's one favorite topic from this battered old desk . . . .

There are other topics that appear frequently. Let's see - immigration. The US shares the same 2,000-mile border with Mexico. Our birthrate is low, theirs is high, and ''illegals'' are pouring over the boundary, with 3 to 10 million estimated to be here now. Mexico wants to export its unemployment to the US. The United States is preparing a $245 billion military budget to defend itself from assault from abroad but can afford only a proposed $77 million this year for its border patrol. The demand for tightening up the borders has been growing for years. It looks as though action were now close. The Senate just approved a new immigration bill, 76-18. The House may follow suit in time . . . .

Another topic this old desk has heard battered about on the typewriter over the years is hand gun control. Years ago a very young man returned from England and was confronted by cultural shock: Back in London the bobbies did not carry firearms while the whole American myth and mystique seemed founded upon self-defense and a pioneer society, the Continental rifle back from Lexington hung over the mantel, the cowboy with sheriffs and six-shooters - the US Constitution itself in Amendment II declaring: ''A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.''

It is fun to look back over the years, but I note one disconcerting trend (if it is a trend). Is the public as much interested in the show as formerly? The presidential process has been stretched out - it used to last months, now it drags for years. The new president, once elected, often seems snared by deadlock and stalemate. In the last five presidential elections the number of voters eligible to vote who actually voted has gone down like a flight of stairs; the percentage was only 53.9 percent in 1980. This compares to some other democracies where it is 70 percent or 80 percent.

Have we had as exciting presidents since Roosevelt? No president has filled a complete two terms since Eisenhower (1953-1961). Party discipline has declined, too, I think (whether for good or ill); the budget deficit has grown; the system of state primaries has stretched out and confuses matters. In short, is the political process less lively than it used to be in the days of Woodrow Wilson. Or is the venerable roll-top desk just getting a bit bored?

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