CONGRESS HAS punctually disappeared on its August vacation, the only deadline it has met all year. Our leaders' last act on leaving town was to pass yet another short-term extension of the Treasury's borrowing authority, to keep the government in funds while they are at the beach. They chose a short-term extension rather than a long-term extension so they would have another artificial crisis to galvanize them when they come back. What they hope to force themselves to do then is create an even greater crisis by reviving the Gramm-Rudman process. But their fake skill in setting these traps never quite catches up with their real skill, which is in evading them. The jaws regularly snap shut, and nothing happens.
The problem continues to be the budget deficit, and the president who created it yet blocks the tax increase that even many Republicans regard as the solution. The government has been stripped of the resources to do its job; a recession would expose it even further. But the president appears to be determined to push the necessary task of reconstruction off on his successor. The Gramm-Rudman revival -- automatic budget cuts if he and Congress fail to hit declining deficit targets -- is ostensibly meant to make him choose between a tax increase and his defense buildup. But Senate Republicans, in the gaps between stirring speeches on the need to reduce the deficit, have been working not to sharpen but to soften the terms of the process for the remainder of Mr. Reagan's term. Their goal is not to put him on the hook, but to let him off. The Gramm-Rudman revival has thus become a tacit weakening of the already temperate budget resolution the Democrats adopted in June. The deficit reduction goals would be reduced. With them, the pressure for a tax increase would also decline but all, of course, under the pennant of fiscal responsibility. You have here politics at its cynical worst.
Meanwhile you also have an enormous summer traffic jam. The budget resolution is only a statement of goals, and in part because these are now being refought, almost no progress has been made on the implementing legislation. The new fiscal year will begin three weeks after Congress returns. The House has passed a majority of the standard appropriations bills, but the Senate has passed none. Neither house has acted on a reconciliation bill to adjust those parts of the government not subject to the appropriations process. The tax bill has been put off until there is agreement whether there should even be one. The defense bill has also been held up, because of a dispute over arms control. On some issues -- the savings and loans, trade, catastrophic health insurance -- progress has continued to be made. But thus far it has not been a year of which anyone involved can be particularly proud. They should think about this while they're sunning themselve