The budget is nobody's idea of a good time. Budgets, whether federal, state or District, are a numbing bore to all but a few who make their livings devising, analyzing or plundering them.
This year, however, the budget process has taken on some drama. What Indiana Jones did for archaeologists, the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law is doing for budget persons. Call them Grudhologists, these budget folks dressed in their suits of dull gray. They're not after the lost ark, they're just trying to figure out what in the Sam Hill is going on.
Budget interpreters have a particularly hard task in local governments such as the District because they must predict and react to the effects not just of the fiscal 1986 Gramm-Rudman-Hollings cuts, but also of the president's recently announced fiscal 1987 federal budget cuts.
To know how bad the effects are going to be, local Grudhologists must calculate whether the president's budget has a prayer of passage in Congress and, if it doesn't, whether Congress will substitute a budget that satisfies the legislated 1987 deficit level of $144 billion.
If neither the president nor the Congress can accomplish this, the much feared trigger provision of Gramm-Rudman-Hollings will fire, blasting a huge hole in the District's overall financial picture.
That said, it must be quickly noted that all of the above may be moot.
A federal court panel last week said, "Never mind," ruling that the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings trigger is unconstitutional because it hinges on a usurpation by the comptroller general, who serves under the legislative branch, of an executive branch function.
The ruling could be overturned by the Supreme Court at some later date.
There may not be any poisoned arrows, hissing reptiles or crazed Nazis in this adventure story, but you have to give today's budget bureaucrat credit for coping with some pretty hairy paperwork.
For policymakers in the District, the upshot has been a firing sequence of numbers, each burning briefly with the flame of credibility only to be snuffed by the next.
Consider just the numbers attached to the District's annual federal payment, a crucial item that makes up about one-fifth of the city's budget.
Jan. 14: The Office of Management and Budget and the Congressional Budget Office announce a Gramm-Rudman-Hollings cut of $23.5 million in the current fiscal year.
Jan. 21: The comptroller general announces the other offices erred and the 1986 payment cut should be $16.8 million.
Jan. 31: Mayor Marion Barry issues his fiscal 1987 budget proposal, which predicts that the federal payment for the next year will rise $19.5 million. Elsewhere in the budget documents released that day, a D.C. analysis predicts an $85 million cut for the same period if the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings trigger takes effect.
Feb. 3: A private study performed by Fiscal Planning Services Inc. predicts a $115 million cut in the payment in the case of a trigger.
Feb. 5: President Reagan issues his budget, calling for a $19.5 million increase in the payment. Barry says the city got the increase, in the face of massive budget cuts, because he had personally lobbied for it.
Of course, all those numbers could be wrong, as any Grudhologist worth his salt will tell you.