It has been nearly eight months since President Bush proposed a budget for the coming fiscal year, more than five months since the legal deadline for final congressional action on a spending plan and just one week before the start of fiscal 1991.
Still there is no budget.
The budget-writing process, rarely a slave to timetables, is at a standstill. Bush administration officials and Democratic congressional leaders remain deadlocked in their pursuit of a five-year, $500 billion deficit-reduction agreement as statutory and self-imposed deadlines slip away and new ones loom.
More than just dollars and cents divide them. Federal budgets are not simply balance sheets, they are political documents. The differences blocking agreement are deeply rooted in divergent outlooks on political philosophies, spending priorities, constitutional prerogatives and arcane accounting principles.
Each side is so entrenched in its position, participants say, that there is no obvious compromise. "My greatest fear," said a top GOP congressional budget analyst, "is that I'll be struck by lightning -- and I'll never know how this turns out."
If a deal is not in place by next week, and if Congress does not change the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law's deadlines, across-the-board spending cuts that could eventually total $105.7 billion are in sight. Such cuts could lead to large-scale furloughs of federal employees and big reductions in spending programs that would cause serious disruptions in government.
Top congressional leaders and administration officials met at the Capitol again last night seeking to get the talks moving. It was not clear what progress they made in the session, which lasted more than four hours. They are to meet again today.
One of the most contentious issues facing them is Bush's proposed cut in the capital gains tax rate. "That's the big hurdle right now," Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) told reporters yesterday.
It is essentially a political question. Administration bargainers agree with the Democratic analysis that the proposal would lose revenue over five years and even agree that the cut must somehow be matched with a compensating increase in revenue. But the two disagree sharply over how.
The Republicans offered a plan to limit deductibility of state and local income taxes as a way of recovering the lost revenue. Democrats, though, insist that the offsetting money come from a higher income tax rate on the wealthiest, who they contend would benefit most from the capital gains cut.
On CBS News's "Face the Nation" yesterday, Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) called the debate over capital gains an "issue of tax fairness."
Administration officials, still smarting from the political firestorm triggered by Bush's abandonment of his "no-new-taxes" campaign pledge this spring, fear the reaction of conservative House Republicans if they agree to raise rates.
But yesterday, Dole indicated a willingness to raise the top individual income tax rate, now at 28 percent. "I don't disagree with Senator Mitchell," he said on the CBS broadcast. "If you're going to give those over $200,000 a break, they ought to pay for it."
Never as enthusiastic as Bush about cutting the capital gains tax rate, Dole has become increasingly impatient with the administration's bargainers. "I don't know that else they've got to do this year, but I've got a lot I'd like to do," he said on "Face the Nation." He referred to "the White House experts," adding: "They are experts; they told me."
The solution will probably have to come from Bush himself. "It's the president's call," Dole told reporters.
When the talks shifted last week from the full summit group to a smaller council of the top congressional leaders in both parties and administration officials, Mitchell and House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) asked that Bush come to the table, according to officials familiar with the proceedings.
But the administration representatives -- Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady, White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu and Office of Management and Budget Director Richard G. Darman -- said more progress would have to be made first, the sources said.
Although the two sides also differ on a variety of spending questions, the issue is less how much to spend than how to spend it.
The latest Republican plan envisions saving $503 billion over five years, $2.7 billion less than the last Democratic proposal.
Over that period, each side would save between $170 billion, the GOP figure, and $174.6 billion, the Democratic level, from programs that are subject to annual appropriations.
But the two sides have been unable to agree how to enforce any five-year agreement. The administration wants spending caps put into law, an idea Democrats oppose. "Their idea of enforcement is, 'Trust us,' " said Rep. Bill Archer (Tex.), the ranking Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee.
Democrats also resist allocating the savings between military and non-military accounts beyond the second year, instead proposing a limit on all appropriated funds. GOP bargainers fear Congress will make deep cuts in military spending to allow domestic spending to grow and still meet the targets.
For Democrats, the issue is Congress's constitutional prerogative to control the federal purse. Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and a fierce defender of congressional powers, delivered lengthy discourses on the topic while the bargainers met at the Andrews Air Force Base Officers' Club, participants said.
The negotiators are also at odds over how to account for some of the proposed savings. Conforming to the practice of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, Democrats count $22.2 billion in new federal fees over five years as a spending savings -- "offsetting receipts" in budget-speak. Republicans, however, count their $30.6 billion in fees as revenues. As a result, GOP bargainers challenge the Democrats' claimed savings in benefit programs and the amount of their proposed revenue increases.
As the squabbling continues, deadlines slip away. The Congressional Budget Act directs lawmakers to complete action on the budget by May 15. The guideline, which states no penalty for violation, has more often been broken than obeyed. Other, self-imposed deadlines -- the end of June, the beginning of August, Sept. 10, Sept. 17 -- have come and gone.
This is not the first time that lawmakers have let debates on spending run up to the last, absolutely final deadline.
Only once in the last decade, in 1988, has Congress passed all 13 spending bills that fund the government before the beginning of the new fiscal year. Even then, the Senate gave final congressional approval to the last bill with seconds to spare. Three times in the 1980s, none of the spending bills was passed before the start of the new fiscal year.
The statutory deadlines mean little because, as former CBO director Rudolph G. Penner said, "Congress has the power to do whatever it wants."
Long delays in the process are taken for granted. But Penner, now an Urban Institute senior fellow, warned that in earlier years, waiting until "the last minute hasn't had as dire consequences as it has in this one" because of the present prospect of the huge Gramm-Rudman-Hollings spending cut.
This week, the House is to consider legislation to delay the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deadline to Oct. 20. Bush has vowed to veto such a measure, but House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jamie L. Whitten (D-Miss.) plans to include it in an omnibus spending bill to fund the federal government after Oct. 1. Without it, the government would virtually shut down.
Last week, Democratic House leaders said they had not yet decided whether to support the delay.
Administration and congressional officials alike say it is increasingly likely that the across-the-board cuts, colloquially called a "sequester," will be in effect for at least a while.
The cuts may be the catalyst needed to get approval of a deficit-cutting plan. "After a week or two of sequester the White House and the Congress would be looking for some way out," Dole said yesterday.
"There is this feeling of being out of control that was not in existence during those years I was involved in the budget," said James T. McIntyre, an OMB director in the Carter administration.
But the feeling may not be altogether new. During an earlier national crisis, an American leader begged for congressional action to save the nation from "sinking into irretrievable ruin."
He wrote that "party disputes and personal quarrels are the great business of the day, while the momentous concerns of an empire -- a great and accumulated debt, ruined finances, depreciated money, and the want of credit . . . are but secondary considerations and postponed from day to day, from week to week."
The year was 1778 and the writer was Gen. George Washington. His ire, in the middle of the Revolutionary War, was directed at the Continental Congress.