And so these huge and ever-growing "entitlement" programs remain on unsustainable paths.
Meanwhile, there are countless examples of Congress dodging chances to cut spending elsewhere.
For decades, lawmakers have refused to let the Pentagon eliminate costly and unwanted weapons systems, which often provide jobs in their home districts.
Last week, House Armed Services Committee members rejected the Defense Department's effort to retire 18 Air Force Global Hawk drones, which would have saved $260 million. The planes are built in the district of the committee's chairman, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif.
Committee members also rejected a Pentagon bid to close more military bases. Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va. — whose district includes huge Navy bases and the Army's Fort Lee — called the base-closing idea "flawed."
It's hardly new. Twenty years ago, then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney told senators: "Congress has directed me to spend money on all kinds of things that are not related to defense, but mostly related to politics back home."
The tea party's role in the GOP's 2010 takeover of the House has given some anti-deficit activists hope that the White House and congressional leaders will finally swallow major spending cuts. Tea party activists nearly triggered a debt-ceiling crisis last year, and they played a key part in budget negotiations that have teed up $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts over 10 years unless Congress takes new action by December, after the Nov. 6 election.
But even tea party heroes — and more important, their supporters — often hail budget cuts on large, abstract scales while embracing spending-as-usual on the home front.
When Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., called for eliminating the Internal Revenue Service and the federal income tax at a town hall meeting last year in Coral Springs, Fla., his constituents cheered lustily. The crowd, peppered with tea party signs and flags, applauded just as loudly when West announced he had secured a $21 million federal grant to build a second runway at a local airport.
In interviews with several attendees, no one accepted the notion that the positions might be contradictory, if not hypocritical. The region needs the new runway, they said.
Some Republicans predict their party will enact unprecedented spending cuts if Romney defeats Obama this fall and the GOP takes over the Senate and retains House control. That's certainly possible, but history raises at least a few doubts.
Republicans controlled the House, Senate and White House in 2003, when Congress added the prescription drug benefit to Medicare without paying for it. The 10-year cost is estimated at $1.2 trillion or more.
Former U.S. Comptroller General David Walker called it "the most fiscally irresponsible piece of legislation since the 1960s."
The conservative Heritage Foundation says the source of the nation's budget crisis "is bipartisan. Generations of politicians from both political parties have invited millions of Americans into greater dependence on the government, promising expensive services without regard to cost."
Ironically, perhaps, Congress' gridlock may lead to the biggest one-time deficit-reduction package in memory. Unless Congress acts by Dec. 31, a host of tax hikes — including taxes on income, payroll and capital gains — will hit millions of Americans in 2013. That possibility, plus the scheduled spending cuts that resulted from last year's budget impasses, mean the economy faces "a fiscal cliff," said Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.
Perhaps doing nothing is the only way Congress can enact significant deficit reduction.
EDITOR'S NOTE _ An occasional look behind the rhetoric of public officials.
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