Lawmakers duck deficit issue again. Congress is beginning to suspect that its own rules are part of the problem

The United States government did not go into default. No federal checks bounced. Congress averted a threatened financial disaster last week with another stopgap funding measure. But on Capitol Hill a sense of frustration is growing as the legislature fails to complete its most basic financial tasks.

For more than two months Congress has delayed the painful step of passing a debt extension to allow the nation's debt to rise to the historic benchmark of $2 trillion. The debt ceiling bill has become ensnared in the struggle over a proposal to mandate a balanced budget.

Now the lawmakers have sidetracked both issues until about Dec. 12, when the federal government is expected to run short of cash again.

``If newspapers slipped their deadlines like Congress does, there would never be any paper to read with your morning coffee,'' says Sen. David L. Boren (D) of Oklahoma, one of many lawmakers who are complaining in private and public that the legislature, especially the Senate, is immobilized.

``I really think the country now questions whether we can operate in a responsible manner,'' says Sen. Nancy L. Kassebaum (R) of Kansas.

Not only has Congress failed to lift the debt ceiling for the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, it has also completed only three of 13 routine appropriations bills to fund the government this year. (President Reagan vetoed a fourth on Friday; he said it was too costly.)

While the Senate debated the plan to balance the federal budget within five years, it postponed a major deficit-cutting bill for the fiscal year already in progress.

Sen. Pete V. Domenici, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, recently told his colleagues that failure to complete the '86 deficit-reduction bill means $52 million in promised savings are lost each day. ``Those are savings you cannot pick up as time passes,'' said the New Mexico Republican.

The Domenici bill, passed last week in the upper chamber, still faces a House-Senate conference where the two houses must strike a compromise.

Although critics of senatorial delay reside on both sides of the aisle, this week the critique is taking on a more partisan tone. A group of Democratic senators are planning to reserve floor time Tuesday to pin the blame on the Republican majority.

``We're getting less and less done with more wheels spinning,'' charges Sen. Donald W. Riegle Jr. (D) of Michigan. ``The majority party controls the work flow. Frankly, I don't think a very good job is being done. Here we are in the middle of November. What's the Senate accomplished? I think very little.''

Not surprisingly, the Michigan Democrat says his party ``would be happy'' to replace the GOP as the majority party in the Senate.

Citing growing concern among members, Sen. David Pryor of (D) Arkansas says, ``This frustration is seemingly the result of our continued inability to deal, in any form of expeditious manner, with pressing issues. . .''

Critics take care not to blame Senate majority leader Robert J. Dole (R) of Kansas directly. In fact, Senator Dole has himself complained of being hamstrung by Senate rules that give each senator the power to delay or filibuster a bill.

Some observers say the heart of the legislature's woes is neither rules nor a particular party, but indecision in Washington and in the countryside on how to deal with the overriding problem of the government's red ink.

``This is not a structural problem,'' says political scientist Norman J. Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, a public-policy research group in Washington, D.C. ``This is a problem that the President wants a deficit decline'' without touching social security or his defense buildup and without raising taxes, he says.

Senator Kassebaum says the problem is that ``the President sees [the deficit] in a different way, and the House and Senate don't see it the same way either.''

The Kansas Republican notes that President Reagan says he wants a 3 percent increase for the military budget while he favors the Senate balanced-budget plan that would almost certainly cut defense. ``I don't know how you reconcile the two approaches,'' she says.

In this atmosphere of uncertainty, lawmakers have resorted to giving the ``perception'' of cutting the deficit when ``we're not doing anything at all,'' she says.

Members of Congress are also reflecting the public, who are of ``mixed mind'' on deficits, she says. Contrary to the views of balanced-budget activists, such as Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas, Kassebaum says that constituents are not insisting on dramatic action on deficits. ``It's tended to be an uproar we have created,'' she says of the balanced-budget effort on Capitol Hill.

Senator Boren argues that it would take a major effort by President Reagan to mobilize public support for deficit-cutting. ``The President is not leading'' on the issue says Democrat Boren, who in past years has often sided with the GOP on fiscal matters. ``He's got to make up his own mind and then lead.''

Boren also spreads the blame to both parties. ``Each party is afraid to be the one to ask the American people to sacrifice,'' he says, adding that they are both ``underestimating the American people'' and that ``what's passing for smart politics is dumb politics.''

The result is that ``you've got a total recipe for stagnation and stalemate,'' he says.

Because Congress responds only to crises, he says, ``We've got to create an artificial one,'' such as pushing the government to the brink of apparent default.

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