Steve Chapman

Federal budget policy is a dry subject with far too many numbers and charts, which makes it uninviting to most Americans. But the theme of the current budget story is one that could have come from a blockbuster summer movie: We are doomed. There is a fiscal asteroid on course to pulverize us, and no one is coming to the rescue.

The problem is simple and depressingly familiar. This year, federal spending will exceed federal revenue by more than $400 billion. Given the weak state of the economy, the deficit will get worse before it gets better.

Actually, it may never get better, because the current shortfall coincides with the start of the most dreaded fiscal event of all time: the retirement of the baby boomers, who will soon consume eye-popping amounts in Social Security and Medicare.

If that's not bad enough, Bruce Willis is not on hand to intercept the doomsday object before it arrives. Worse yet, neither Barack Obama nor John McCain wants the job.

The latest proof came when McCain unveiled his economic plan, in which he vows to eliminate the deficit in four years. His plan to balance the budget is simple: He plans to balance the budget. Exactly which programs he will trim to reach that goal are anyone's guess.

For someone with a reputation as a fearless foe of congressional earmarks and pork-barrel waste, McCain is amazingly timid in taking on the rest of the budget. About his only specific proposal is a one-year freeze in those discretionary programs that don't involve defense or veterans.

McCain doesn't say how much that would save, but it wouldn't be a lot. Those expenditures amount to only 17 percent of all federal outlays. Eighty-three percent of the budget would keep on growing. After a year, so would the other 17 percent.

He vows to follow up with "comprehensive spending controls." But promising to control spending in general means promising to control nothing in particular.

Just because voters will go along with a vague limit on total outlays doesn't mean they are willing to surrender funds going to them or their favorite causes. It's one thing to inform a toddler that he shouldn't eat too much candy. It's another to take the Tootsie Roll Pop out of his hand.

The Republican standard-bearer, however, acts as though the task will be easy. Among the methods offered in this plan: "Eliminate broken programs. The federal government itself admits that one in five programs do not perform." How about naming one? How about promising to pound a stake through its heart?

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

©Creators Syndicate