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CONGRESS MUST GET DOWN TO WORK

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As usual, Congress is leaving most of its important work until the end of the session. This always touches off a last-minute legislative stampede that frequently produces bad laws and indefensible spending.

Only nine working weeks are left before the October adjournment - a "must" deadline because members of Congress want to get home and campaign before the November elections.In that nine weeks, the 101st Congress must produce a budget. Since none of the preliminary budget deadlines have been met, the end-of-session appropriations bill can be expected to look like the usual "Christmas tree" in which hundreds of spending amendments - many unable to be justified on their own merits - are attached to the budget.

Lawmakers are faced with trying to reduce the deficit, cut spending, fund existing entitlement programs, and approve new programs to please constituents back home. There are no indications that this is going to work any better than in past years, despite efforts to find a "peace dividend" in the defense budget.

As a result, the final budget probably is going to consist of the usual underestimates of spending, overestimates of income, "creative" bookkeeping, using the Social Security surplus to hide other spending and similar tricks. In other words, it will be designed to deceive the public more than be a real reflection of federal finances.

Much of the session so far has been involved in a power struggle between President Bush and the Democratic-controlled Congress. Neither side has been able to win. Congress won't give Bush what he wants, while the president has proven he can veto bills and not be over-ridden.

One congressman compares this situation to a football game where all the play has been between the 20-yard lines, with no scoring.

That will change in the final weeks. It always does because members of Congress know they must produce, somehow, before the session ends. A lot of time will still be spent on issues that will not produce any legislation.

In sum, Congress needs to get out of the habit of becoming bogged down in political infighting until the looming end of the session forces the members to get something done, even if they do it badly.