THE GOOD NEWS and bad on the budget are the same; by the time Congress gets its act together, the weather will be a lot cooler. There could even be some snow on the ground.
The legislative pileup is enormous. The normal processes of government -- of accommodation between the president and Congress, the parties and the houses of Congress -- have broken down. The debt ceiling bill is the latest example. The Treasury has once again been allowed to run out of borrowing authority and, absent legislation, in a few days it will run out of cash. The necessary legislation has been held up to allow members of both parties to add an amendment reviving Gramm-Rudman -- automatic budget cuts in both domestic programs and defense if Congress and the president fail to hit declining deficit targets.
The goal is to inject a sense of urgency into the bogged-down budget deliberations. But now the effort to provide the urgency has bogged down as well. The parties can't agree on the safety features each wants to put in the bill. In the meantime, they may have to pass a temporary extension of the lapsed borrowing authority; it would be the second such confession of failure this year. After that, of course, will come the August recess, the one item on the calendar not likely to be deferred. The recess has in turn become a pretext for deferring the tax bill: why write a bill now and give the interest groups four extra weeks to mobilize against it?
The president sent up his budget for next fiscal year in January. Members of both parties promptly and deservedly shoved it aside as neither credible nor practicable. Congress has been trying to produce an alternative ever since. A resolution merely outlining an alternative was not adopted until last month. All the implementing legislation -- appropriations bills and a reconciliation bill for that part of the budget not subject to the appropriations process -- has still to be enacted.
The House has passed eight of the 13 regular appropriations bills, but the Senate has passed none. And the ones the House has left include the hardest -- labor, health and human services, foreign operations and defense. The defense appropriations bill has not come up in part because the authorization bill on which it theoretically depends is also stuck in the Senate in a dispute over arms control. Meanwhile, the reconciliation process is scarcely more than a concept. No bill exists. A tax increase is supposed to be its central provision, but the president continues to say he will veto any tax increase, and the Ways and Means Committee, perhaps understandably, keeps putting the unpleasantness off.
The result? The fiscal year will begin three weeks after Congress returns from its summer vacation, and very little will have been done. What has come to be known as a crisis will occur, to be met, no doubt, by further temporizing and further efforts to bring the president to the bargaining table. You can say that Congress looks as awful as it does in large part because of the extraordinary pressure his recalcitrance has put it under, but that only helps in divvying up the blame.
The budget outlook now is worse than it was several months ago. Interest rates seem likely to be higher, the economic growth rate lower. When at some point in the future a recession finally hits, the outlook will be worse still. The government will be without reserves to try to turn the economy around. Someone else may be president then, but that won't help, either. It's a bad way to govern