Steve Chapman

Sometimes bipartisanship is grounds for celebration, but more often it is cause for tears. Last week, congressional leaders from both parties went into a room to hammer out a plan that would put taxpayers on the hook for $700 billion. But they assert that the investment is essential to the health of the economy. And they insist that if we make this investment, we'll get all or most of it back.

This promise would be more believable if the federal government had a long record of using tax dollars responsibly. In fact, it's the equivalent of the guy who raids his kid's piggy bank to feed the slots. The most notable impulse of our leaders is spending money the Treasury doesn't have, piling up bills that future Americans will have to cover.

How do our leaders intend to pay for this massive new outlay? Not by raising taxes. Not by cutting spending in other parts of the budget. No, they will borrow the funds. The Chinese and other foreign investors will lend us money so we can keep the economy humming, which will allow us to make the payments on the money we already owe them.

Unfortunately, this deceptively pleasant process can go on only so long. Today the federal government wants to bail out an industry that can't meet its obligations. But it increases the chance that the next time, it will be the federal government that teeters on the brink of financial doom.

The $700 billion comes on top of $85 billion it is lending to save the insurance company AIG. It's in addition to the $200 billion it put up for mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. There may be more on the way.

Add it all up and you find that our government has suddenly run up a trillion dollars in new liabilities. That sounds like a lot -- unless you compare it with Washington's other outstanding commitments. Currently, the national debt stands at roughly $10 trillion, which is about three-quarters as large as our entire annual gross domestic product. But The Concord Coalition, a Washington-based fiscal watchdog group, says explicit and implicit obligations amount to $53 trillion -- "almost as much as today's net worth of all household assets."

Hear that? Everything you own is already spoken for.

With each year, government spending rises, and the budget deficit gets bigger. As the baby boom generation retires, the gap will grow. Given current trends, federal outlays stand to double between now and 2050, while revenues remain roughly stable.

Steve Chapman

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

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