Steve Chapman

In ending the rancorous impasse that led to the shutdown of much of the federal government, Democrats and Republicans agreed they need to sit down together and address the budget to avoid a repeat of the debacle next year. And they probably will reach agreement -- to do as little as possible.

That's not because the budget picture is bright or suffers from problems that will subside on their own. On the contrary, the fiscal forecast is straight out of a Stephen King novel: scary, with every assurance it will grow ever more terrifying.

The federal debt is now equal to 73 percent of gross domestic product -- the highest since just after World War II. The only good news is that the annual deficit has been declining. But it's a brief respite. After 2015, the Congressional Budget Office figures, it will resume its upward trajectory.

Given current trends and policies, CBO said, "By 2038, the deficit would be 6.5 percent of GDP, larger than in any year between 1947 and 2008, and federal debt held by the public would reach 100 percent of GDP, more than in any year except 1945 and 1946. With such large deficits, federal debt would be growing faster than GDP, a path that would ultimately be unsustainable."

At some point, the two parties may have to take painful steps to stave off disaster. But that point is way off in the future. For now, we can expect them to perpetuate the status quo as long as they can.

Balancing the budget is never easy for our leaders, which is why the federal government almost always runs a deficit. But a glimmer of hope can be found in the four-year string of surpluses from 1998 through 2001. Maybe the solutions employed then could be revived.

But a closer look at that experience offers cause for even greater gloom. The balancing of the budget came about through events and circumstances that bear no resemblance to the present.

Back then, says fiscal analyst Chris Edwards of the libertarian Cato Institute, "politicians in both parties were afraid of deficits" -- worried they would bring on high interest rates, rising inflation and economic stagnation. Since then, it's become apparent that most economic indicators do not rise or fall on the tide of red ink -- not in the short run, anyway.

The Clinton administration also benefited from the "peace dividend" generated by the end of the Cold War. The collapse of the Soviet Union allowed us to cut defense spending to the lowest level in decades.

In the 1990s, a booming economy (and stock market) meant more people were paying taxes and fewer were collecting benefits. The baby boom generation was in its prime working years.

Steve Chapman

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

©Creators Syndicate