ON THE BUDGET, the Republicans continue unaccountably to set themselves up to fail in this Congress. They set goals that derive from a mythic view of government rather than the reality. Then reality intrudes, and they turn out to lack the votes to attain the goals even within their own caucus.

They began the year by saying they could cut domestic spending for all programs but Social Security deeply enough to produce a $1 trillion surplus over the next 10 years, most of which they proposed to use to pay for a major tax cut. They passed the tax cut, though narrowly, but can't produce majorities for even the first phase of the corresponding spending cuts -- and the president is about to veto the tax cut, having made the case that the spending cuts would do serious governmental and social harm.

Their new goal, if they can't have the tax cut, is to hold down domestic spending anyway by invoking Social Security. They propose to outdo the Democrats as protectors of the giant program by using none of the Social Security surplus next fiscal year to cover other governmental costs, as has regularly been done in the recent past. It would all be virtuously used instead to pay down debt. But that requires that spending for everything but Social Security be financed out of non-Social Security taxes, a tight constraint, and they don't have the votes for that either.

What they're doing now is pretending otherwise, not by cutting spending but by shifting it around so that, under the budget conventions, it won't count against next fiscal year's total. They've designated billions of dollars for the census, agriculture and defense as emergency spending. They propose to move billions more into either the current fiscal year, by hurrying it up, at least on paper, or into the fiscal year after next, by delaying it, even if only a few days.

But that matters only in the world of accounting. In the real world, the money still will be spent, and the more that is spent, the less will be available for debt reduction. When they move the money into the adjacent years, they merely eat into those years' likely Social Security surpluses in order to keep up the appearance that next year's will be left intact. But it's merely show.

The projected Social Security surplus for the year that will begin next week, Oct. 1, is about $150 billion. A realistic accounting suggests that at least a fifth of that will be used to cover other governmental costs. Strictly speaking, Social Security will be no worse off; the same IOUs will be placed in the Social Security trust fund whether the money is used to cover other costs or pay down debt. The Congressional Budget Office recently estimated that Congress already has used about $11 billion in Social Security funds. That's without the pending $8 billion-plus in emergency farm aid, and without the $8 billion to $9 billion that congressional leaders themselves now acknowledge will be required to complete the appropriations process.

Missing also was the money -- about $3 billion -- that the administration is expected to seek to cover peacekeeping costs in Kosovo. Nor were allowances made for Hurricane Floyd, the earthquake in Turkey, the stub of a tax bill that still is likely to pass, some money for the hospitals to make up for Medicare cuts of a couple of years ago that sliced deeper than anticipated, etc. In that real world, they're already past $30 billion and counting.

The Republicans will try to make it seem the president's fault, and he, theirs. But it's no one's fault that they're breaching a limit that has nothing to do with the true cost of government and was never more than a political artifact. What does the harm is not the money they're about to spend. It's the fake debate they continue to conduct.