AS SO OFTEN happens, Congress and the president have left it to the last few days.
The tentative congressional adjournment date is Friday, there are five major bills left, summing up the entire year's work -- and the president is said to be content with none in its most recent form. He has threatened to veto three; he has a mixed view of a fourth; and he has reportedly decided to support a fifth only in hopes that the Senate can be persuaded to amend it next year.
The five are:
A bill to raise the debt ceiling above $2 trillion for the first time, so the Treasury can continue borrowing into next year; the much fought-over Gramm-Rudman deficit-reduction amendment is attached to this. The president has endorsed the goal of the amendment -- a balanced budget in five years -- but has resisted the defense cuts that it would entail. Conferees reached a compromise on Friday. It is not clear whether he will accept it.
A continuing resolution to fund for the rest of the fiscal year the half of the government, including defense, for which regular appropriations bills have not been passed. Present spending authority expires Thursday night. The White House has threatened a veto on grounds that the resolution may provide too little for defense while exceeding budget targets for various domestic programs.
A "reconciliation bill" restructuring a range of domestic programs, to meet those budget targets not covered in the appropriations process. Similar House and Senate versions are in conference; sponsors say that each would cut the deficit about $20 billion this fiscal year, more thereafter. Administration spokesmen have warned of a veto because some of the deficit reduction would come from tax increases, some has already been achieved administratively and some is the product not of cuts, but of creative accounting. Both versions of the bill would also authorize some new programs while cutting old.
The farm bill now in conference. The conferees have been told that the president's advisers will recommend a veto unless they sharply cut the bill's likely cost.
The tax reform bill scheduled to come before the House this week. The Democrats preserved the label and the framework of the president's reform proposal of last May, but reworked details. The most important difference is that their plan would give a much smaller tax cut than the president's to people in the highest income brackets. Democratic leaders say the bill requires presidential and Republican support to pass; the president has been standoffish.
It is a terrible way to govern. That will be true however all the bluffing and maneuvering and posturing turns out. You have here five bills of enormous consequence -- economic, social, political. Bunched and lost inside them are provisions that will affect every interest group and individual in the country. Congress seems incapable of acting except in the rush of adjournment, when seized with the pressure finally to go home.
At some point in all this, you can expect the president to deplore the behavior and the habits of the legislators. The remarks will be deserved. Congress is not presently one of the world's more efficient or impressive institutions. But the president is equally responsible for the likely week ahead, the possible train wreck. His tax and spending policies have produced the deficit that is the source of strain in all of this legislation. All year, he has balked at moves to deal with the deficit because they have impinged on his preferences as to taxes versus spending, and domestic spending versus defense. The difference between this and the more orderly years of the first term is that Congress is no longer so compliant. That much is a good thing.