The Senate is in the midst of a filibuster concerning the line-item veto even though the bill is not yet even before it. The opponents are not filibustering the bill itself but an attempt by Majority Leader Robert Dole to call the bill up for consideration.

Historically, opponents of legislation, no matter how ardent, would wait until legislation was before the Senate before beginning their filibuster. No matter what party controlled the Senate, the majority leader was allowed to set the agenda.

The line-item veto is an important proposal, and no one quarrels with the right of the opponents to attempt to talk it to death. But to filibuster the right of the majority leader to merely call it up for consideration is symbolic of a greater problem.

Congress is in the midst of an institutional crisis. The budget and spending procedures currently in place are a miserable failure. The Budget Act of 1974 never worked well, is not working now at all, and without some alterations will never work in the future.

There is a three-tier process that has to be completed before the federal fiscal year ends on Sept. 30. The budget resolution, the authorizing legislation and the appropriations bills all have to make it through House and Senate committees, floor action, conference committee and floor action for the second time before final congressional action is taken on spending.

There are not enough hours in the day or in the months to accomplish that by the end of the fiscal year, when the federal government runs out of money and the new budget begins on Oct. 1. We now have government by continuing resolution, a huge package containing hundreds of billions of dollars of funding. Last year's continuing resolution was for more than $400 billion. This year's version will probably be much the same or more.

We are now less than 2 1/2 months from the end of the fiscal year, and there is no budget resolution nor are there immediate prospects for one. This logjam has backed up the entire system. Although some action has gone forward on some authorizing and appropriations bills without benefit of the money targets, few expect that many of the 13 appropriations bills will have been enacted by Sept. 30.

Congress may very well face one bill containing the funding for the vast majority of our trillion-dollar government. We will have round-the-clock sessions to pass a continuing resolution in order to keep the government from shutting down. The conferees will have to make late-night decisions on billions of dollars in spending. The final package will go the president, and he'll have at best a few hours to decide whether to accept everything -- the good, the bad and the ugly -- or to veto it and tell hundreds of thousands of federal employees to close up shop and go home until something can be worked out.

This is the way to run the government? This is the way to make careful decisions on how to battle the deficit crisis?

The system is simply collapsing around us. The current process is successful in one area -- self-protection. Not only is it not in danger from reform efforts, the majority leader of the Senate faces a filibuster when he attempts to call up a bill that would alter in a small way the current system.

The line-item veto in question is not even a permanent change. For two years it would allow the president to veto small sections of the larger appropriations bills, with Congress, of course, retaining the authority to override his veto. If this does not work well at the federal level -- as it does in the 43 states that have the item veto -- or if the president abuses his authority, the line-item veto will not be renewed by Congress and it will automatically die at the end of two years.

No claim is made that the line-item veto would immediately resolve the deficit problem. It is just a first step toward reforming the current system. Other answers must be found. But the current system is so politically comfortable in the narrow sense of personal power that a small step toward reform can't even be debated on its merits on the floor of the Senate.

To the defenders of the status quo, I say: Oppose the line-item veto if you will -- but let's debate it. Come up with your own ideas for improving the budget and spending process. Let's get them out in the open, on the floor for debate. But don't be so afraid of change that you filibuster even the discussion of ideas.