Few issues have so dominated public policy and polarized Congress and the president in recent years as the burgeoning federal budget deficit. Shortly after Labor Day, White House and congressional budget negotiators will gather in hopes of finally putting the shortfall on a glide path to zero.

The current deficits have their roots in the mid-1960s. Federal spending has steadily risen since then as social programs for the sick and poor have expanded and as one president sent U.S. forces to Southeast Asia and another built up the nation's military arsenal.

It took the government 186 years to spend more than $100 billion annually but only 25 years more to break the $1 trillion mark. The fiscal 1991 budget is projected to be $1.27 trillion.

Congress sought to control the deficit in 1985 with the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings budget law. But since the statute was enacted, the deficit has twice gone up, not down, from the previous year. The current fiscal yea's deficit is projected to be $218.5 billion, back to near its highest level ever.

The last time the federal budget's bottom line was written in black ink in consecutive years was 1956 and 1957.