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Washington's fall agenda

The Columbus Day holiday break should have given Washington a moment to consider whether it has its fall agenda right. For the White House, the priority is the summit with Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva next month. The administration's struggle over the status of the Strategic Defense Initiative continues. That the Defense Department would find the need to press its case publicly for SDI -- reinterpreting the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to justify space-based weapons development, issuing intelligence reports showing Soviet defensive weapons gains, and arguing that the United States must go beyond the offensive weapo ns strategy of MAD (mutual assured destruction) -- suggests that the internal debate is far from over. Mr. Reagan himself remains SDI's staunchest advocate. But it is simply not known whether the President will break the concrete around his feet on his ``star wars'' program.

The best use of the President's time in the coming weeks is preparation for the summit between the superpower chiefs. For that reason alone, his pocketing for the moment another of his pet projects -- tax reform -- makes sense.

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But there are other reasons to make less, not more, of tax reform for now. First, it is not really a priority of the American people. They may not like taxes. They may think tax policies are unfair, or resent the aggressive grip of the Internal Revenue Service. But as new tax reform legislation has progressed, it has generated its own opposition. Campaign donations are pouring into the elected officials' coffers on Capitol Hill, as special-interest groups like the insurance industry seek to influence th e outcome.

House Ways and Means Committee chairman Dan Rostenkowski has worked out a special relationship with Treasury Secretary James Baker to get a tax reform bill through. This alliance may enhance the political status of these two astute politicians (Mr. Rostenkowski's ambitions for the House speakership; Mr. Baker's intention to give the Reagan administration at least one major domestic legislative success in the President's second term). But as Senate majority leader Robert Dole points out, time is short fo r this session, and uncertainty over tax legislation is keeping private and corporate officials from making the investment decisions needed to ensure uninterrupted economic growth next year.

The federal deficit is more on the public's mind -- which reflects favorably on the public's judgment. Improvements were made last week in the Senate bill that would purportedly eliminate the yearly deficit by 1991: Mandated cuts would be made across the board, rather than at the President's discretion, and the safety-clause horizon, nullifying the measure if a recession is forecast, was shortened. The goal of deficit reduction should be applauded. But one cannot ignore the influence of next year's ele ctions on the rush to pass the deficit bill: Of senators with seats up for election in 1986, 27 voted for the measure and only five against it. If Congress and the White House have not had the resolve under the existing budget process to cut spending or raise taxes sufficiently in the first 9 months of this year, by the end of the fiscal year in September, why assume that Washington leaders will honor the new process any better?

Washington is getting some of its more controversial issues under control -- Superfund and farm legislation, for example. But as we look ahead, the main agenda could not be clearer: Domestically, the deficit's heavy mortgage on economic growth must be lifted; and internationally, democratic values must be asserted at the superpower summit in a context of nuclear stability and world peace.

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