Steve Chapman

Freshmen Republicans in the House rallied behind the "cut, cap and balance" plan, but it amounts to yet another stack of alluring promises. The cuts, $111 billion next year, are not itemized. Neither are the programs that would take a hit from the caps.

The "balance" refers to a constitutional amendment to ban deficit spending. But such an amendment -- even in the very unlikely event it could be passed -- wouldn't balance the budget. It would merely commit Congress and the president to approve cuts in spending or increases in revenue that would eliminate the fiscal gap.

It's not a solution. It's a promise to come up with a solution, somehow, someday.

Why not just devise a remedy now? Because lots of voters will lose interest in fiscal discipline once they realize it means tangible sacrifice on their part. They might even exact vengeance at the polls. Getting voters to endorse frugality is easy. Taking money out of their hands is not.

Nor are our elected leaders addressing the real source of the problem, which lies in three federal entitlement programs -- Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Even ostensible hardliners evade this reality. Judson Phillips, founder of Tea Party Nation, writes in The Washington Post that "Americans are tired of 'bridges to nowhere,' ferries to nowhere, neon light museums, cowboy poetry readings and cow flatulence studies."

But items like these make up a microscopic share of the budget. The big three entitlements, which Judson never mentions, account for 40 percent.

However the debt ceiling turns out, the essential decisions are off in the future. If the past is any guide, that's where they will stay.

Steve Chapman

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

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