The public lets politicians get away with this because, while they express support for less spending in general, they gets squeamish about specific spending cuts. They wish the total budget was smaller, but aren't so keen on measures to curb the costs of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid (the big drivers of our long-term debt problems) or on attractive-sounding programs, such as the environment, education, or infrastructure.
Democrats embrace this cognitive dissonance: They claim to support fiscal discipline, but demonize any proposed entitlement reform as an assault on the elderly and poor. Never mind if reforms would affect only high-income seniors. Somehow “the rich” can always afford to pay more in taxes, but any reduction in transfer payment to wealthy seniors is out-of-bounds.
The President's Bipartisan Fiscal Commission echoed the findings of just about every commission that's studied the federal budget since the Reagan administration. Getting our fiscal house in order begins with controlling the cost of entitlements. President Obama ignored this inconvenient recommendation, and Democrats on the Super Committee stand poised to do the same.
So the real question facing the Super Committee—and indeed the United States in general—is just how dysfunctional is our political system? Has it now become essentially impossible to reduce government payouts to any pleasant-sounding interest group or cause?
It's easy to look at the crisis in Greece and be stunned by the Greeks' unwillingness to recognize the simple truth that their basic government structure is unsustainable. Yet how different is the United States today? Our debt crisis has yet to reach Greek-levels, but today we watch as a so-called “Super Committee” of American representatives balk at cutting a mere $1.5 trillion from federal spending over ten years, when our deficit this year alone was more than a trillion. If these cuts aren't possible today, when will we ever get spending under-control? Are we waiting to suffer Greece's fate before we act?
That's why Americans should be deeply concerned about the Super Committee's deliberations. It's not because of their specific budget cuts are so critical. It's what they tell us about whether our political system is equipped to solve our serious, long-term fiscal challenges.