Horror stories are coming out of Washington these days about what the U.S. government would face if budget negotiators don't reach a deal by Oct. 1.
On that date, automatic, across-the-board Gramm-Rudman deficit cuts are supposed to slash more than $100 billion from federal spending.Tales of massive layoffs, social programs of every kind and size crippled, planes unable to fly because of a lack of air traffic controllers, military bases closed and soldiers without pay, and other disasters are heard on every side.
Don't believe them.
The president, and particularly Congress, may bumble around a lot. But no matter what their political differences, none of them are foolish enough to stand by and see the federal government come crashing down because the bills can't be paid and payrolls met.
They may get close to the Oct. 1 deadline before finally giving in to the inevitable, but the situation is certain to be rescued somehow.
Even if a new budget is not built by the cutoff date, Congress can simply extend the old budget by means of "continuing resolutions" until differences are worked out. It's been done often enough before.
Already, there are signs that the deadlock may be breaking. Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., suggested this week that the cut in the capital gains tax - a feature badly wanted by President Bush - may be removed from the budget bargaining table. That would eliminate one of the major obstacles that had kept Democrats from accepting any deal.
The budget rescue is being sought in the name of trimming the deficit by $50 billion through a combination of program cuts and tax increases.
If that figure is reached, don't expect many of the budget architects to mention that the deficit actually is larger than last year.
Under Gramm-Rudman, the deficit should be shrinking each year, supposedly leading to a balanced budget near the end of the decade. In reality, the deficit this year is estimated at more than $300 billion. This is progress?
That staggering figure does not count all of the S&L bailout mess and the billions borrowed from the Social Security trust fund to make the deficit appear less horrifying.
How can the administration and Congress justify the budget for the next fiscal year if it does not really meet Gramm-Rudman goals?
Probably the same way as other years: by fudging figures, over-estimating revenues, underestimating expenses and not counting some items. This dishonesty is acknowledged in Congress by the phrase "smoke and mirrors" budgeting.
The Oct. 1 deadline can come and go, but two things are expected to stay the same: The government will continue to function and there will be a huge deficit.