Steve Chapman

Divided we stand, united we fall. I know, I've got the old adage backward. But when it comes to solving one of the biggest problems looming over the nation -- the federal budget deficit -- backward could be the best way to go.

We may soon find out. For the past two years, Democrats have controlled Congress as well as the presidency. With that dominance, they were able to pass a giant fiscal stimulus package and a major health insurance overhaul, among other rich items.

The deficit, which was gigantic under President George W. Bush, grew large enough to fill the Grand Canyon. For the foreseeable future, federal outlays are projected to remain at the highest level, as a share of the economy, since World War II.

But if the GOP captures one or both houses, as expected, the dynamic will change. We will be back to a government with power divided between the two parties.

Republicans, of course, have vowed to cut federal expenditures, a promise in accord with popular sentiment. Pollster Scott Rasmussen recently said their political comeback can be traced to one moment in the fight over President Barack Obama's fiscal stimulus plan -- "when every Republican (in the House of Representatives) said they would oppose the stimulus package."

Now, by a 2-to-1 margin, he noted, "voters say they prefer a congressman who will reduce overall spending to one who promises to bring a 'fair share' of government to their congressional district."

That doesn't mean a Republican victory will actually lead to lower outlays. In the first place, GOP leaders show curiously little interest in identifying what programs they will slash or eliminate. Even if they can agree on some major cuts, they will have to persuade the president.

Another obstacle is that, during the campaign, both parties have taken the path of least pain. Robert Bixby, executive director of the budget watchdog group The Concord Coalition, told me, "Republicans are asking for a mandate not to raise taxes, and Democrats are asking for a mandate not to cut entitlements."

In fact, everyone has embraced the fantasy of maximum government at minimum cost. Democrats tout tax cuts for all but the rich. Republicans reject the administration's effort to squeeze modest savings out of Medicare.

Both parties pledge to uphold popular government benefits and send the bill to the taxpayers of tomorrow. No one wants to admit that most Americans will have to accept less from federal programs they value -- and pay more for what they get.

Steve Chapman

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

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