IN THE LONG VIEW, the partial shutdown of the federal government could turn out to be a beneficial fiasco. If enough Americans are inconvenienced or damaged economically, Congress may be loath to indulge again in a growing pattern of trying to use federal workers, and the services they perform, as leverage for the achievement of partisan goals.
House Republicans hold no monopoly on such tactics. When Republican presidents were in the White House and Democrats controlled Congress, there were funding cutoffs of much more limited duration than the 20-day shutdown now roiling Washington and reaching out to the hinterlands. Not only federal workers but growing hordes of private-sector employees are being hurt as federal contractors shut up shop.
The issue, for the moment, is whether House Republicans will continue to resist passage of appropriations to put the government back to work until President Clinton agrees to their version of a plan to balance the federal budget in seven years. It is an ambitious goal, one that has fired the imagination of millions of taxpayers worried about a mountain of federal debt.
But Senate majority leader Bob Dole, the frontrunner for the GOP nomination, has had his fill of House Speaker Newt Gingrich's tactics, saying "enough is enough." He favors a continuing resolution providing funding until Jan. 12 while he, Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Clinton pursue the compromise that has to come. Though Mr. Dole had to know he would be repudiated by the right wing of his party, he evidently figured it was advantageous to appear as the adult in the Gingrich-Clinton playground.
Behind the protracted drama in the nation's capital is a chronic failure of the congressional budget process. Since the early Seventies, the legislative branch has tried reform after reform in effort conduct its affairs more efficiently and to wean itself from deficit financing. But nothing has worked, and the current imbroglio really reflects a step backward from the time-honored procedure of trying to separate policy measures passed by authorizing committees from money bills in the control of appropriations committees.
For now, the appropriations, budget and finance committees are king, presuming to incorporate in "reconciliation" bills (covering taxes and spending) many ideological issues favored by House conservatives. The result is the mess now on view. Once this crisis is over, Congress should face overwhelming pressure to correct the way it goes about its business.