Steve Chapman

Today, however, the economy is in a never-ending slump. Costs for social programs, such as food stamps and Medicaid, have risen sharply, while tax receipts have not. Many boomers have reached their golden years and started to collect from Social Security and Medicare on an unprecedented scale.

So the budgetary environment is much tougher than it was then. Meanwhile, politicians have gotten more comfortable with fiscal laxity. Spending ballooned under George W. Bush and again under Barack Obama.

"Few members of either party want to cut spending," laments Edwards, who notes that among the Republican attacks on Obama is that his health care plan would cut Medicare, whose growth happens to be "the biggest single problem in the federal budget."

Today, Democrats won't tolerate new cuts in Social Security and Medicare unless Republicans agree to boost revenue. Republicans think no spending cut can justify a tax increase. Each party kindly lets the other off the hook.

Last week, The New York Times reported House and Senate budget conferees "largely agreed at a closed-door breakfast on Thursday that a deal involving significant new tax revenues and large-scale changes to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, whose growth in an aging population is driving long-term projections of growing debt, is not going to happen."

Nor is it a sure thing that Congress will stick with the automatic cuts mandated by the 2011 budget deal. Democrats complain they shortchange vital domestic programs, while Republicans fear they weaken the military. It's not hard to imagine a solution that would satisfy both parties.

Avoiding fiscal responsibility would mean continuing to run up huge debts and court economic ruin. But that's never stopped them before.

Steve Chapman

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

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