WASHINGTON -- If there's one thing Republicans and Democrats in Washington say they agree on, it's the need to reduce federal spending. And it's something they almost never do, as recent events have proved again.
Last week the U.S. Postal Service asked the Senate for permission to proceed with a multibillion-dollar savings package that included closing thousands of money-losing post offices. The Senate refused, voting instead to give the Postal Service another $11 billion amid speeches hailing the historic role of post offices in small towns. The vote also delayed plans to end Saturday mail delivery.
The Postal Service's board of governors was incensed. "It is totally inappropriate in these economic times to keep unneeded facilities open," it said.
Much the same happened last month when federally subsidized student loan rates were scheduled to rise, saving the government $6 billion a year. As President Barack Obama campaigned to stop the increase, Republican rival Mitt Romney joined in. House Republicans, whose original budget plan would have allowed the rate increase, quickly followed suit.
And so it goes, program by program, year after year, no matter which party controls the White House or Congress.
Lawmakers talk in grand, abstract terms of cutting vast sums from the budget. Even Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, whose Democratic Party traditionally is less fretful about spending than is the GOP, has proposed a whopping $1.2 trillion cut in discretionary spending.
But when given the chance to actually cut a few billion dollars from a particular program, lawmakers routinely bow to ardent defenders, and their lobbyists, and pull back. When these lawmakers get re-elected, term after term, the lesson to aspiring politicians is clear.
"Americans don't want less government," says Stan Collender, a long-time expert on the federal budget. "They want government to cost less."
"Cutting federal spending is popular until you get to the specific programs," he says. "Then, with only a few very small exceptions, it becomes impossible."
Coupled with tax cuts enacted over the past dozen years, Congress' aversion to cost-cutting has driven the nation's debt skyward. The government now borrows 39 cents of every dollar it spends.
At big and small levels, lawmakers repeatedly fail to enact cost-cutting proposals. A plan for a potent deficit-reduction task force was scrapped in January 2010 when enough senators – including seven Republicans who originally sponsored the bill – voted against it.
Last November, a highly touted bipartisan "supercommittee" failed to agree on a deficit-reduction plan. That set the stage for deep automatic spending cuts in December, which lawmakers are scrambling to avert.
Presidents and lawmakers of every stripe have talked for years of needing to rein in Social Security and Medicare. They often campaign in ways to make sure it doesn't happen.
President George W. Bush's bid to partly privatize Social Security in 2005 quickly died under attacks from Democrats and senior citizens groups. In 2010, Republicans took control of the House after accusing dozens of Democrats of wanting to gut Medicare. The Democrats had voted for Obama's health care overhaul, which envisioned $500 billion in Medicare savings over 10 years.
And liberals rebuked Obama last year for showing openness to reduced benefits for Social Security and Medicare in exchange for tax increases under a never-realized "grand bargain" with Republicans.
The Progressive Change Campaign Committee warned in a petition, "President Obama: If you cut Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid benefits for me, my family, or families like mine, don't ask for a penny of my money or an hour of my time in 2012."
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.