THE WORLD'S greatest living argument against divided government is reassembling: the president returned on Sunday, and Congress reconvenes tomorrow. There will then be three weeks left until next fiscal year, for which none of the 13 regular appropriations bills has been passed; nor is any likely to be by the time the year begins. The government will once again have to be put on hold, in the form of a continuing resolution. But that's the least of it.
Next year's budget resolution was adopted in June. The appropriations bills are one of the avenues for carrying such resolutions out. Reconciliation bills, adjusting the programs not subject to the appropriations process, are the other. No reconciliation bill is in sight either. The bill this year was supposed to contain the tax increase around which the budget resolution revolves. But the president has said he would veto a tax increase, so work on one has not begun; nor is it clear it will.
Instead, in the guise of restoring and strengthening the Gramm-Rudman deficit-reduction proc-ess, the two houses are busily refighting and weakening the budget resolution, so that less deficit reduction will be required. The leader in this delicate maneuver is the same Sen. Phil Gramm after whom the original process is named. The idea seems to be that if deficit reduction requires a tax increase -- as surely it does -- let the next president do it.
The problem is political. The Democrats have majorities, but the Republicans have the veto and the filibuster; particularly in the Senate, neither side seems to have the votes to win. The defense authorization bill has been hung up in an arms control filibuster there since May; a campaign finance reform bill has been similarly blocked since June. The Senate will shortly have to deal as well with the nomination of Judge Robert Bork to the Supreme Court; on this, the opposing Democrats have threatened to filibuster.
Behind these major tie-ups, other legislation languishes. A clean-air deadline looms Dec. 31; no action has been taken. The Farm Credit System is nearly bankrupt; so also is the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. For neither is there yet a bill. Fair-housing legislation has yet to emerge from the Judiciary committees; a bill to reverse the Supreme Court's 1984 Grove City decision restricting the reach of the antidiscrimination laws has been reported by committee in the Senate but awaits time on the floor. Welfare reform is snarled by disputes over cost and philosophy in both houses; health insurance for catastrophic illnesses has passed the House, but in a form that has the Senate uncertain and the president threatening veto. The trade bills are so cumbersome that the House may appoint 140 conferees. In foreign affairs, there are possible fights ahead on both Central America (further aid to the contras) and the Middle East (arms for the Saudis, ships in the Persian Gulf), as well as the continuing struggle over arms control.
But the budget remains at the heart of this. The president won't bend, and neither party in Congress seems quite to know what to do about it. The government is paralyzed as a result.