THE CONGRESSIONAL Democrats are getting ready to send the president a year's worth of work in just two bills. One will be a single appropriations bill for all or most of the government; it will likely provide both defense and domestic funds, each held there as a hostage for the other. The second will be a reconciliation bill containing both a tax increase and changes in the parts of the budget not subject to the appropriations process.
Megabills are a poor way to govern. As Republicans -- and some Democrats -- have complained, they deprive both Congress and the president of discretion. The appropriations bill is likely to make policy on everything from arms control to AIDS, yet the only choice for most congressmen -- and finally for the president -- will be a single yes or no.
But unfortunately, megabills seem to be the only way to get the president to the bargaining table. The deficit has to be reduced; this will require an increase in taxes and some restraint in both defense and domestic spending; yet the president continues to threaten vetoes if his priorities are disturbed, and the Democrats seem to lack the votes to override him. So the choices are to acquiesce and risk the present course until the next election or create an artificial crisis by folding the entire government into one or two "must" bills. Bad as it is, the latter course is the better one.
But Congress, if it does this, needs to discipline itself no less than the president. House Ways and Means Committee Democrats have voted to tuck into the reconciliation legislation the welfare reform bill they approved earlier this year, which House Republicans and the administration both oppose. The Democrats figure that in this way they can protect the bill, or parts of it, against a veto. But the tactic is wrong. The reform is too consequential a measure to be dealt with as a codicil to deficit reduction.
Other committees have been playing the opposite game with the reconciliation bill, not adding to its freight but making jokes of their responsibility to reduce the deficit. The House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, instead of making minor cuts or imposing user fees for the Coast Guard and other services under its jurisdiction, proposed charging the Kuwaitis $250,000 a vessel for the oil tankers that the Navy escorts through the Persian Gulf. The House Agriculture Committee voted in a similar spirit of statesmanship to require clearer labeling when imitation cheese is used in frozen pizzas. The theory is that this will lead to greater use of real cheese and reduce the cost of dairy price supports. For doing the dairymen a favor the committee thus credited itself with $13 million in deficit reduction. It claimed other savings for voting to sell surplus corn to utilities as fuel to produce electricity.
Congress is engaged in a difficult and serious business just now. Comedians like these only reinforce a caricature that it cannot afford