TWO MONTHS ago the Treasury bumped up against the debt ceiling. After the requisite number of threats to shut the government down, Congress agreed to lift the ceiling for two months. First a concession was exacted: there would be talks on reforming the budget process. "The president and Congress have agreed to work for a meaningful and enforceable budget process and a constitutional fix of the Gramm-Rudman . . . deficit reduction act," said White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater. "The president is hopeful that House and Senate Republicans and Democrats and administration representatives can meet at an early date . . . ."
We were incautious enough to detect a hint of thaw in that announcement. Silly us. It is two weeks until the Treasury bumps up against the debt ceiling again, and if serious talks have been held, it's the best-kept secret of the year. Once this crisis is negotiated, as of course it will be, there will be about six legislative weeks left until the next fiscal year. (The year will not begin until Oct. 1, but Congress takes August off.) The Democratic majorities in the House and Senate have now agreed on a budget resolution for the year, a set of goals. The House has begun work on the appropriations bills to achieve some of those goals. Work has also begun in a desultory way on the reconciliation bill to achieve the rest. This is to be the vehicle for the modest tax increase that is central to the Democratic plan -- but the president continues to say he'll veto that. Who wants to spend summer in Washington going through that exercise?
To players on both sides the debt ceiling bill continues to look like a way to inject some urgency into the proceedings, end the impasse, produce the negotiations that have thus far failed to materialize even on the dreary process, much less the budget itself. Both Democrats and some Republicans are proposing to resurrect, as an amendment, the dread Gramm-Rudman Cuisinart to cut the budget automatically if Congress and the president fail to hit declining deficit targets. It would mince defense as well as domestic programs and thereby in theory bring the president to the table. It's worth a try. Almost anything is by now.
The president is amusing himself by making speeches in which he denounces, almost caricatures, Congress for failing to come to grips with the budget. Everyone knows Congress' failings. It is clumsy, dilatory, showy, weak-willed -- all that stuff. But this time it is not at fault. He is. The serious efforts in recent years to reduce the deficit have come from Congress -- first the Senate Republicans, this year the Democrats in both houses -- over his objections.
The objections continue. If the current speeches are to be believed, he would rather go out of office 18 months from now with his priorities intact -- low tax, high defense -- and the country's fiscal affairs in a mess than the other way around. Heaven help his successor, of whatever party