After coming face-to-face with shutting down the federal government, Congress and the president backed away at the last moment this week and adopted a new budget proposal. Unfortunately, the plan amounts to little more than a piece of paper lacking any real substance.
Even though many were deeply dissatisfied with the outcome, the Senate, the House and President Bush all signed on - apparently preferring any solution, no matter how unrealistic, to the alternative of a bankrupt government.What the budget vote did was to adopt the same deficit reduction goals as the summit agreement that was killed last week by the House - $40 billion in this year's budget and $500 billion over a five-year period - while avoiding the difficult part, namely, how to do it.
In effect, the budget rescues the government from insolvency by authorizing continuing funding and, at the same time, giving Congress until Oct. 19 to make the hard decisions about how to raise the money.
No one wants to repeat the experience of the past holiday weekend when the whole federal system teetered on the edge shutting down and furloughing many of its 2.4 million workers and closing a variety of programs. As a result, Congress can be expected to produce something, even if only more "smoke and mirrors" - the make-believe accounting practices that have discredited the budget process for years.
There was much wrong with the budget summit deal defeated last week. It put an inordinate share of the deficit burden on the sick and elderly through Medicare cuts while leaving the wealthy and well-to-do relatively untouched. It imposed new gasoline taxes at a time when pump prices already are skyrocketing, an inflationary gesture that could damage many businesses - hardly the way to encourage the economy.
But if that was the best the administration and Congress could do in weeks of summit talks, is there hope that a badly divided Congress can produce better answers in just 10 days? Given the lack of political courage in an election year - or most any other time - the outlook is not particularly bright.
Just how the extra $134 billion in new taxes is to be raised this time is a mystery. Just what domestic programs will be slashed this time and by how much also is unknown, although Medicare will take a smaller hit. Essentially, all the latest budget deal has done is buy a few days' time.
The trouble with the whole deficit reduction concept is that everyone wants some painless way to do it - and there isn't any such thing. Years of profligate, irresponsible spending have brought the government to this crisis condition.
Each year, federal revenues grow by $70 billion or more, yet Congress spends every cent of it. When taxes are raised and programs cut, Congress still manages to spend more money than was saved. The deficit just gets bigger. Despite all the rhetoric and crisis atmosphere, expect more of the same this time around.