With three days left before the Oct. 1 start of the new federal budget year, Senate Chaplain Richard Halverson began the chamber's deliberations Thursday with a timely prayer.
"Benevolent Lord, grant to thy servants, laboring under the urgent necessity of the fiscal deadline, relief from tension," he intoned.Few others detect a sense of urgency among lawmakers working on spending and deficit-cutting legislation. Failing once again to complete their budget work by the start of the new fiscal year, members of Congress have demonstrated that they care little about meeting fiscal deadlines.
That attitude is widely expected to be demonstrated again Oct. 16. That day, the Gramm-Rudman deficit-reduction law will automatically trigger spending cuts in many federal programs unless $6 billion in savings are enacted into law - an action that few people believe Congress will take.
Those automatic cuts - split evenly between defense and domestic programs - were written into law with the belief that the slashes would be so draconian that their mere threat would drive lawmakers to settle their differences and finish their work.
This year, fear of those cuts is hard to find.
"The talk around here is incredibly unfocused and unconcerned about" the cuts, complains Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee. Many legislators believe that even if the cuts take effect, they will eventually be rolled back - as they have in the past - and noticed by few if any voters.
"There will be some bad publicity and some ill effect, but ultimately it will be nullified and we'll move on," says Rep. Tim Penny, D-Minn., a fiscal conservative who believes the process must be made stricter.
Technically, the cuts temporarily take effect Oct. 1. Defense Department programs will have 4.3 percent of their budgets withheld, while domestic agencies will be pared by 5.3 percent, the difference arising because many domestic programs - like Social Security - are exempted.
If legislation is not enacted by Oct. 16 trimming the deficit to $110 billion, those temporary cuts become permanent.
But the permanent reductions do little to frighten lawmakers for several reasons. The cuts can be rolled back by Congress at any time, as happened in 1987 when they lasted two months.
They would be barely noticed if they lasted only several weeks, because agencies can juggle their budgets by delaying purchases or hiring. And many lawmakers prefer them to the alternatives: the capital gains tax reduction Bush champions, higher taxes that some Democrats have suggested, or deep cuts in specific programs.
"People have said, `Let's have it and see how bad it is,"' said Rep. William Frenzel, R-Minn., ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee.
Lawmakers clearly have higher priorities than obeying budget law deadlines or avoiding spending cuts. Among them are enacting new programs, and protecting favored existing ones from spending cuts.
So far, Congress has sent Bush just one of the 13 annual spending bills for fiscal 1990. Lawmakers are expected to spend the next few weeks on the remaining 12 measures, and even longer on the tax bill.
Their fearlessness about triggering spending cuts, and their stubbornness to defend programs dear to them, will do little to spur rapid work. It also leaves many people convinced that budget-process reform would do little good.