Congress should not feel too self-congratulatory about enacting a stopgap spending bill over the weekend to keep the federal government operating. The legislation, of course, is necessary, and should be signed into law by President Reagan. But the larger point is that the very need for the measure shows how far Congress - and the White House - yet have to go to get the federal budget process under control.
The spending measure - which is a continuing resolution - was made necessary because lawmakers have so far enacted only eight of the 13 appropriations bills that provide funds for the federal government. Lawmakers should have approved the appropriations measures weeks ago.
The Senate has still not acted on legislation to raise the federal debt ceiling. The debt impasse has momentarily blocked US savings bonds sales and some federal borrowing. Meantime, deficits for the next several years are projected in the range of $200 billion a year - creating concern that the federal government will collide with private borrowers in the competition for loans and drive up interest rates.
Surely, all sides to the federal budget triangle - Congress, the White House, and the various federal agencies involved - need to pull together to shape a realistic budget. Some lawmakers, to their credit, are doing just that. Sen. Robert Dole, for example, proposes linking a tax increase, including energy, to cuts in future cost-of-living increases in federal entitlements. But President Reagan vows to veto a tax increase. House Speaker Thomas O'Neill refuses to consider reductions in benefit programs, particularly for the elderly.
Unfortunately, neither the Reagan nor the O'Neill approach will do anything to ease future deficits. Mr. Reagan's promise to consider a major reform of the US Tax Code - such as adopting a new flat tax - has merit. But calls for tax reform are hardly new. It seems unlikely that the White House or lawmakers would be able to win the consensus needed from interest groups to get such a tax-reform package through Congress in next year's election setting.
Senator Dole's approach makes good sense. What is clearly essential is some bold leadership from the White House and top congressional leaders to reduce spending and come up with some modest tax hikes. Not to do so now would most likely push such a package into 1985.