A decade ago, the nation's annual federal budget deficit was considered a scandal. Republicans took over both houses of Congress in part because of something called the "Contract with America," which had at its core a "Fiscal Responsibility Act," which would give the president a line-item veto and require a balanced budget.
It was a movement with energy and momentum. As the "contract" noted, "The balanced budget amendment is supported by 80 percent of the American people." Congress wasn't going to be able to hide from the issue any longer.
A lot has happened since then. A dramatic upturn in the economy, fed by a surge in high-tech stocks, gave the nation a budget surplus in the 1990s. The balanced budget amendment never passed. It became a moot point. And then came the recession and the war on terrorism, and new deficits.
Last week, the Treasury Department announced that the budget deficit for 2004 is now $413 billion — the largest ever in terms of dollars, and the biggest since World War II when inflation is taken into account. But today, Republicans are in control and the "contract" is a distant memory. Democrats, who helped build years of deficits in the 20th century, don't have much credibility on the subject, and Republicans seem to have abandoned it.
It would seem there is no issue in Washington with less momentum or energy. And yet, all the problems inherent with deficit spending remain.
To quote from the Contract with America: "The spending madness must stop. É Just as every American sits at the kitchen table and balances his or her budget, Congress must begin balancing our nation's budget — now." Without fiscal responsibility, the nation is poised to run headlong into a Social Security and Medicare crisis in a few years when members of the so-called baby-boom generation begin to retire.
Yes, the nation must come to terms with certain realities. Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have taxed the treasury, and those conflicts must not be short-changed. But at the same time, we hear precious little talk about fiscal restraint, or about the need to find alternatives to costly government programs. Democrats blame the president, but they have no credible plan to make ends meet, other than raising taxes. Republicans like to argue that the deficit is still only 3.6 percent of the economy, as if that will head off the looming fiscal crisis that is now beginning to crest on the horizon.
Meanwhile, Congress last week passed a $137 billion package of special tax breaks for corporations and various special interests.
Unlike a decade ago, fiscal irresponsibility is now a mammoth problem whose solution has no champion, and that is a bit frightening.