WHEN CONGRESS passed the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law, some anticipated that there would be a constitutional challenge to the statute. So language was added to the measure to provide for expedited consideration of any such suit in order to minimize the time and confusion of litigation. As a result, a lawsuit challenging the act was filed by Public Citizen's Alan Morrison on the day the law was signed, and the Supreme Court announced a final decision in the case less than seven months later.

No such precautions were taken, however, when an omnibus crime bill including controversial sentencing guidelines was passed. Litigation could have been expected in this case too, and now it has begun. The same lawyers who successfully challenged Gramm-Rudman and the earlier legislative veto laws have asked the U.S. district court here to declare the sentencing guidelines provision unconstitutional because legislative duties -- fixing sentences for crimes -- have been transferred to a commission composed, in part, of judges. The lawsuit is on something of a fast track, since no trial on the facts will be necessary and if the plaintiffs succeed at the district court level the case goes immediately to the Supreme Court on appeal. But even under the best of circumstances the litigation will take many months.

What happens in the meantime? The new guidelines, which went into effect Nov. 1, will be used for sentencing anyone convicted of crimes that occurred after that date. But because of the uncertainty over whether the guidelines will be sustained by the courts, there will be confusion in the plea bargaining process, as well as a blizzard of motions at the trial level contesting the new system. It is important that the question of constitutionality be decided as soon as possible therefore, and neither the courts nor the parties should drag their feet.

The matter could in fact be settled much more quickly and certainly by congressional action. All Congress needs to do is to pass a bill incorporating the Sentencing Commission's recommendations, thus giving the guidelines a legislative grounding. This should be easy because there is broad support for the concept of guidelines in Congress and because the major controversial issue -- capital punishment -- is not part of the package. This sensible solution could preclude confusion in the federal criminal justice system. Is anyone on the Hill willing to step out and take some responsibility here