Fixing the federal budget deficit is a political task that requires guts, but offers no glory. And that may be why there are few heroes in the battle over a deficit reduction deal.
The resounding defeat of the deficit reduction accord in the House early Friday morning raises twoquestions: Can any package big enough to deal with the deficit problem pass Congress? Will anything that passes Congress be big enough to deal with the problem?
What makes this issue so paralyzing is, in part, the peculiar nature of the deficit crisis. It is a crisis that can't be seen and whose ill effects are hard to isolate. That is why so many people compare it to something else.
Warning Americans about the danger of running big budget deficits has been likened to telling a drunkard at a party that he is going to feel really lousy the next morning. No matter how hard you try to get the message across, the happy carouser isn't going to care until the next morning.
President Bush last week compared the deficit to "a cancer gnawing away at our nation's health. ... Year after year, it mortgages the future of our children."
And Charles Schultze, a former budget director, has compared running big deficits to having termites in a house. You can't see them, but they eat away at the very structure of the house.
But if the deficit isn't very visible, every year it becomes more and more damaging.
Interest payments on the accumulated federal debt make up one of the biggest components of the budget. They come to roughly the same amount of money as the government expects to pay in Social Security benefits next year.
Or, to look at it another way, the interest payments equal nearly half of the money the federal government takes in from individual income taxes.
The cost of paying for past borrowing represents one of the fastest-growing components of the federal budget.
This year, these interest payments are projected to be $259.8 billion, larger than the estimated deficit itself.
More than a quarter of those interest payments goes into other Treasury accounts, such as the Social Security Trust Fund. The rest goes to holders of Treasury securities in the United States and around the world.
A few lawmakers and economists argue that concern over the deficit is alarmist. They usually note that at the end of World War II, the federal government's debt was bigger than the entire gross national product (GNP). Today, that debt, including the part owed to the Social Security Trust Fund, comes to about 60 percent of the GNP.
But during the 1940s, interest rates were lower and the cost of the carrying the federal debt was actually smaller, compared with the GNP, than it is today.
Today, with the economy generating little if any growth, and with the deficit swollen by a decade of record-setting budget shortfalls, policy makers have little latitude to get the economy moving again.
The problem is so serious that the giant deficit reduction package proposed by the White House and congressional leaders after eight months of tough negotiating would barely dent the overall debt problem.
All the money raised by the new tax proposals in the budget deal defeated last week -- higher cigarette, beer and wine taxes; higher gasoline taxes; higher airport taxes; and limits on income tax deductions -- added up over five years would have paid less than a single year's interest on the federal debt.
Bush administration Budget Director Richard G. Darman has long advocated the need for a "big fix" for the deficit problem. Yet the failure of the past eight months of talks raises questions about the possibility of fixing a decade of big deficits in a single swoop.
White House and congressional negotiators came to the table this spring with ambitious goals: $50 billion in savings for fiscal 1991 and a balanced budget -- without using excess Social Security funds -- in five years.
When they emerged last week, their actual accomplishment was more modest: $40.1 billion in the first year -- less than the budget resolution passed in May by the Senate Budget Committee -- and a deficit of $62.6 billion -- essentially this year's Gramm-Rudman-Hollings target -- in fiscal 1995.
And even that package had too much political pain for most lawmakers to accept.
The enormity of the deficit means that businesses and homeowners who want to borrow have to compete with the federal government for funds, and that drives up interest rates.
But because people don't know how much interest rates would drop if the deficit were cut, they don't appreciate the biggest benefit they would get from deficit reduction.
Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan had publicly promised that a budget deal would make it possible for the Fed to lower interest rates, a savings for homeowners, businesses, consumers with credit card debt and students with college loans. But lawmakers felt they wouldn't get credit from that constituency if they voted for the budget plan.
Unlike the deficit, the cost of balancing the budget is all too clear. "If you're going to have deficit reduction that is real, it's going to require some pain and sacrifice," said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.).
It means attacking the benefit programs, called entitlements, that make up roughly half of the federal budget -- Social Security, Medicare, farm subsidies, veterans benefits and more.
"There are only so many places you can go," said House Budget Committee Chairman Leon E. Panetta (D-Calif.). "Inevitably, you're going to raise the hackles of some constituency."
"Folks, if we cannot make any savings in the entitlement programs at this time, I do not know where we are going to be in a generation," House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) said.
"We are not going to have any pie to distribute in a few years because entitlements are driving discretionary spending down."
Many argue that the time for the big deal was last year, when the president was new in office, the economy healthier and, most important for lawmakers, the election was a year away.
"It would have been much easier to get this deal last year," Sasser said. "The president was riding high, the economy was in much better condition, there was not the malaise in the body politic that there is now. The Congress would have been much more amenable to go along with the president in his honeymoon period."
But at that time, Bush thought it was too close to his own successful election to abandon his crucial campaign pledge of "no new taxes," according to his advisers. Now, paring benefit programs means inflicting a level of political pain that no lawmaker wants to be responsible for, especially on the eve of an election.
"They want to see the issue resolved but they don't want to resolve it in a way that offends any of their constituents," Panetta said. "That presents an impossible situation."