But Washington continues not only to spend what it doesn't have, but to do so at a record-setting pace. In the fiscal year that ended on September 30, the federal government burned through a staggering $3.6 trillion -- "well above amounts recorded before 2009," as the Congressional Budget Office dryly noted. The budget deficits of the past three years -- $1.416 trillion (2009), $1.294 trillion (2010), and $1.298 trillion (2011) -- have been the largest in American history, whether measured in dollars or as a percentage of GDP.
For all the hyperventilating in recent months about "draconian" cuts and "slashing spending" and the "brutal" scope of the automatic reductions that are supposed to take effect if the supercommittee doesn't agree on a plan, the bottom line is unchanged: The federal budget, like the federal establishment it funds, is grotesquely overweight and getting fatter by the day. The frantic stimulus spendathon has done nothing to heal the economy, and it is ludicrous that anyone can speak of the government's current "austerity" with a straight face. The deal that raised the federal debt ceiling last summer didn't impose austerity on Washington's budget-makers. It averted austerity.
Sequestration -- the triggering of spending cuts if the supercommittee fails to come up with the required deficit trims -- will barely slow the spending train. Between 2013 and 2021, the federal budget is expected to grow by another $1.7 trillion. And if the sequester trigger is pulled? By another $1.6 trillion. If that's "brutal", I'm Katy Perry.
Like any morbidly obese patient, the federal behemoth needs to go on a diet. Ultimately the only prescription for reducing the government's parade of yearly deficits and mounting debt without suffocating economic growth is to cut spending. Politicians find that a frightening prospect, and special interests and pressure groups don't hesitate to exploit their fear.
But kicking the out-of-control spending habit isn't impossible. Other governments (and earlier administrations) have done it, and with excellent results. Under Prime Minister Jean Chretien in the 1990s, Canada slashed spending across the board, reduced its federal payroll by 45,000 jobs, and privatized the national railway and air-traffic-control system. The result, as Fred Barnes recently chronicled in National Affairs, was an economic rebound. A deficit of nearly $37 billion turned into a $3 billion surplus, and a national economy that had been growing at an anemic 1% kicked into overdrive, expanding by an annual average of 3.4% between 1994 and 2006.
The longer Washington avoids serious and permanent spending cuts, the higher the debt will climb and the more painful the ultimate reckoning will be. "We cannot simply spend as we please and defer the consequences," the president said in 2009. It was true then. It's even truer now.