the war on terrorism and the struggling economy has dominated front pages
and newscasts during the last year, another story, one about the dramatic
surge in federal government spending, has gone largely unreported.
"George W. Bush's administration is spending domestic money faster than Clinton, faster than... Bush, the elder, faster than Reagan. You have to go back to the Ford administration to find a time when domestic spending has risen so fast. That's not including defense spending; that's not including the prescription drugs plan that's about to be passed," David Brooks of The Weekly Standard said on the NewsHour. "It's not just Bush; it's the Congress. Fiscal discipline has just disappeared in the past year or two..."
That spending, combined with a surge in homeland security and defense spending after Sept. 11, 2001, has led to an unexpected budget morass after four years of budget surpluses.
According to August budget estimates, government spending and tax cuts enacted since February 2001 have eliminated $2.25 trillion of projected budget surpluses over the next decade. The economic downturn during the same time has wiped out $1.7 trillion.
Emergency spending after the Sept. 11 attacks makes up part of the spending flurry Congress and the president have approved recently, while another part, lawmakers say, comes from the voters themselves.
"People talk about security -- pension security, national security, job security," Sen. Jean Carnahan (D-Mo.), who faces a tough reelection campaign this fall, told The Washington Post in August. "Nobody's coming up to me and saying, 'I want to talk to you about the deficit.'"
The deficit issue does not cut cleanly across party lines. Republicans and Democrats have backed sweeping measures that will cost the government billions.
In the Senate, 12 Democrats voted for the president's $1.35 trillion tax cut, a $73.5 billion farm bill and a $594 billion prescription drug plan. In the House, 136 Republicans -- more than half of the party's House contingent -- endorsed the tax cut, the farm bill and their version of a prescription drug plan. The total 10-year price tag for those plans adds up to $2.44 trillion.
But not all members of Congress are endorsing the idea of new deficit spending.
"We are on the edge of an abyss, and one step more and we're going to commit fiscal suicide," Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) said recently.
Despite the calls for restraint, Congress was forced to up the so-called debt ceiling to $6.4 trillion. The move, in late June, was necessary since the federal government was about to hit its borrowing limits.
As the election-year positioning continues, both Democrats and Republicans have said the looming reality of deficit spending will serve as fuel for the campaign. And both parties have said they will use the deficit debate to argue the other is fiscally irresponsible.
--By Lee Banville, Online NewsHour