While deer hunting in Utah opens this weekend, open season on incumbents is already under way nationwide.

Opponents and voters are blasting away at incumbents with a fierceness not seen in years - with polls showing some of the highest levels of dissatisfaction ever. But if history holds true, more than 90 percent of incumbents will win re-election anyway - thanks to campaign laws that heavily favor them.The deer can only wish they had it so good. The trouble is, they don't write the hunting laws.

Members of Congress do write campaign laws - and have seen to it that they allow opponents to come after them only with the political equivalent of sticks and stones instead of rifles. They may hurt, but usually don't kill.

Incumbents in Washington are running scared anyway. A quick look at the no-win situation they face with the budget this week shows why.

Congress must come up with a budget agreement Friday night before midnight, or non-essential government services will again be shut down as the government becomes technically broke. Most in Congress say an agreement may not come without a veto because of wide divisions between Democrats and Republicans.

Voters do not like closing down services, or the continuing lack of progress on the budget. (As the saying goes, if pro is the opposite of con, then is progress the opposite of Congress?)

Voters may not like incumbents any better even if Congress passes a budget that really cuts $500 billion as promised out of the federal deficit. That's because it would likely raise taxes on gasoline, liquor and cigarettes and make cuts in programs ranging from Medicare to space exploration.

Voters don't like their taxes or gasoline prices raised either, nor do they like their benefits cut.

Congress may try to put a Band-Aid on the budget, recess until after the election and use a "lame-duck" session after elections to make the hard deficit decisions. Or it could simply pass a resolution calling for spending to continue at the same levels as last year.

Voters would also frown on such indecision, especially after incumbents voted earlier this year to give themselves a $35,000 pay raise. Voters expect them to earn it.

With that no-win scenario, the time would appear ripe for a wholesale dumping of incumbents.

But incumbent-favoring election laws should save members of Congress. Laws giving them "free" mailing privileges and easy access to special interest money should help them get their message to voters, and help them claim they aren't responsible for the messes in Washington and deserve re-election.

For example, Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, was able to send $236,244 worth of newsletters and postcards to voters at taxpayer expense last year, and Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, sent $64,160 worth. They may have sent more this year, but House rules do not require them to say.

Their opponents will likely spend far less on their entire campaigns than the two incumbents spent on such "free" mail last year, which helped them build name recognition.

Campaign laws also result in heavy contributions from political action committees - or groups formed by special interests to donate money. PACs have given incumbents 30 times as much money as they gave to challengers nationally this year, mainly because they prefer investing in someone already in power.

Because of heavy PAC contributions to Owens and Hansen, the watchdog group Common Cause recently called their races "financially non-competitive" because they have raised more than twice as much as their opponents.

Common Cause noted that Owens has received $266,717 from PACs compared to the minuscule $150 that his opponent, Genevieve Atwood, had received. Hansen received $115,976 in PAC money compared to only $6,500 for his opponent, Kenley Brunsdale.

Both houses have passed campaign reform bills this year to limit or prohibit PAC money and improve reporting on franked mail.

But a conference trying to work out differences in the House and Senate versions is expected to fail. That will allow incumbents to take credit for voting for reform without worrying that it would actually become law and threaten their jobs.

With such help, 98.5 percent of House incumbents who ran two years ago were re-elected. The hunt for incumbents will likely remain about that unsuccessful as long as they set the rules and voters don't demand change.