After years of playing games and ducking the issue of the budget deficit, Congress has come face-to-face with hard reality. The truth is that the government has no money to spend because it has no budget. Even if Congress can act quickly, the impact of the government shutting down may be large and far-reaching.

Federal spokesmen said "essential" services will continue, including functioning of the armed forces, mail delivery, air traffic control, customs, and other basic programs.The three-day Columbus Day holiday has delayed some of the impact, but by Tuesday - if no budget has been put together by a Congress working around the clock - only workers needed to protect life and property will stay on the job. The rest of the 2.4 million federal employees will be furloughed.

It is difficult to imagine the far-reaching consequences of such an event. Federal programs have become so pervasive over the decades that they touch everyone's life, not just those holding federal jobs.

What happens to people who receive federal funds for programs ranging from education to welfare to medical care? What happens to state and local programs that are partially funded by federal dollars? Any long delay in creating a budget would be catastrophic. And Congress knows it.

The federal government has been more or less financially broke for years but has avoided the consequences of spending more money than it takes in. It has done this by simply borrowing hundreds of billions of dollars each year to make up the difference. But without a budget it can't even borrow.

This stunning state of affairs is due to the refusal of the U.S. House of Representatives to adopt a budget deficit-reduction plan worked out between President Bush and leaders of both parties in Congress.

There was much to criticize in that budget compromise. It put too much of the burden on the sick, the elderly and those in lower income brackets, while leaving the wealthy or well-to-do relatively unscathed. It imposed hefty taxes on gasoline at a time when gas prices already are soaring due to the Persian Gulf crisis. It pretended to do more deficit-cutting than it really did.

That latter tactic has been used for years to evade Gramm-Rudman deficit-cutting requirements. But the deficit has grown so huge that something had to be done to prevent Gramm-Rudman from slashing $100 billion across the board from government operations.

Ironically, it was in an effort to prevent that $100 billion in automatic cuts that the administration and Congress crafted the budget compromise. By rejecting the compromise, the House left the government facing not merely $100 billion in spending cuts, but with no budget at all.

Actually, the 1991 fiscal year started Oct. 1, but Congress passed a continuing resolution - allowing the previous budget levels to continue until midnight Oct. 5 - in order to get the compromise worked out. Such continuing resolutions have been used often before when Congress was late getting a budget put together.

But when Congress passed another stop-gap spending bill to keep the government going until another compromise could be found, Bush vetoed it on Saturday, saying there would be "no more business as usual" for Congress and that the "American people are fed up."

The president is quite right, and he is forcing Congress to act against the appalling backdrop of the whole government shutting down, not just in theory or by a certain deadline, but an actual day-to-day closure. The panic in Congress must be considerable at this point.

Yet while this is satisfying in a sense - it's about time Congress got panicked over the budget deficit - the country cannot afford to see the government be shut down. The budget compromise was awful in many respects; even those who voted for it had to hold their noses, but no government at all is even worse.

The nation has to have a government, for all its faults. That requires a budget of some kind. Congress must act quickly. Maybe this firsthand, up-close look at the reality of no government will give Congress the backbone to do some real deficit cutting instead of playing political games.