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SOVIETS MAY TOP U.S. IN DEFICIT SPENDING

It's a well-known fact that the Soviets have been stealing U.S. technology for a long time. But now they're pilfering our budget techniques.

"I shudder to think," said Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., chairman of the Joint Economic Committee.A CIA report on the Soviet economy made front-page news with its dire prognosis for that nation's future. But the spies could have figured that out by watching television.

The real genius in the report, as seen from Capitol Hill, is its conclusion that the Soviets have been using smoke and mirrors to hide the size of their budget deficit.

"No-o-o-o-o!" said a stunned Rep. Leon Panetta, D-Calif., chairman of the House Budget Committee.

The CIA's top Soviet analysts go to Capitol Hill annually to give their update on the health of the other superpower. It's always prime grist for the foreign policy mavens.

This year, the budget discussion tucked away on Page 14 of analyst George Kolt's testimony sounded familiar to anyone who's watched the U.S. federal budget process: "We are skeptical of official claims that the deficit last year was slightly below the limit."

Kolt said the claimed deficit figure was curiously out of kilter with the totals his number-crunchers came up with when they added amounts in known revenue categories.

"Total budget revenues appear inflated," he said.

And not only was income overstated, spending was low-balled.

"Off-budget expenditures to support agricultural prices should be added to the official deficit," the CIA concluded.

Inflated income estimates? Off-budget spending? It looks, alas, like superpower competition extends well beyond the arms race and battles for influence in the Third World.

But Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., a longtime budget veteran, says it's not as bad as it looks.

"Our smoke and mirrors aren't as bad as their smoke and mirrors," he says. "We're not in as bad shape as they are."

That may be true.

Last month's CIA report notes that the Kremlin funded its deficit almost entirely by adding to the money supply, in essence watering down the ruble. The United States doesn't do that any more. Instead, it borrows what it doesn't have - something the Soviets can't do because potential lenders fear they won't ever be paid back.

Still, the similarities in fiscal gamesmanship are striking.

The CIA notes that the Soviet economic slide is marked by the central government shifting financial burdens to the republics. Sounds kind of like the Reagan administration's "New Federalism."

Meanwhile, the nation - the Soviet one, that is - has been neglecting investment in modernizing its industry. Hmmm. . . .

There may be a positive side to all this. These U.S.-style tendencies could bring a rosy glow to those who hope the Soviets are ready for Western-style economic reform.

And who knows? Maybe in the Soviet Union's new openness they could share some of their budget secrets with Washington.

Then again, maybe they already have. If the CIA digs a little harder, it may find the Soviets actually invented Gramm-Rudman, although they probably called it something like Grammski-Rudmanov.

After all, the original Gramm-Rudman formula for bringing down the U.S. budget deficit was - dare we say it? - a five-year plan.