04/24/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Budget Debate for Grownups

The problem with bringing some sort of sanity to the federal budget isn't that people don't want sanity. It's that they usually want something else more.

Political candidates and their advisors know this, and they generally act accordingly.

Take Douglas Holtz-Eakin, for example. The Republican economist and former Congressional Budget Office director used to say eminently sensible things about the budget. In fact, he was broadly admired for his candor as much as for his expertise. "I don't see why we should suspend [fiscal] discipline at a time of war," he said in 2006. "There is no rational linkage between what coming in and what's going out. There's an adherence to cutting taxes and adherence to spending. Doesn't add up at all... I'm just frustrated, I'll be honest about that. This is not a good way to conduct the people's business."

Now in the heat of electioneering, now that he's advising Republican candidate John McCain, not so much. According to The New York Times, he now says it's worth adding to the deficit to pay for the Iraq war and additional tax cuts. "I would like the next president not to talk about deficit reduction," Holtz-Eakin said. "The next president should talk about what's good for American families -- education, health care at reasonable costs, pensions that are secure, opening our borders to trade. If we can take care of that, we can take care of the budget."

It's not just Holtz-Eakin who's willing to sacrifice fiscal responsibility for other goals. Robert Reich, President Clinton's labor secretary, has long warned Democrats against being deficit hawks, arguing that Clinton's successful effort to balance the budget was a trap, because other liberal goals got sacrificed to do it. And when we spoke about the budget at the progressive think tank Demos recently, we got several questions from people who thought it was deeply unfair that Democrats might have to limit their agenda to clean up fiscal problems left by the Bush administration. "They threw a big party, the house is wrecked, and now we have to clean it up," said Miles Rapoport, Demos' president. "And we weren't even invited to the party."

You can understand where both sides are coming from. The nation has so many pressing needs, from health care to education to homeland security. Most middle-class and working class families could desperately use a little more take-home pay, and tax cuts do provide that. So why not make those choices? Why not give the public what they need now?

Here's the thing; there's a name for people who set things right after a wild house-trashing party. They're called grownups. (Or, if you're a rock band, hotel managers.) And they do it because you can't live in a trashed house. We have yet to meet the parents who come home from a weekend away, look around the remains of the living room, and say, "It's time to build that addition."

The fact is, the budget is reaching the point where the next president won't be able to ignore some basic realities. Our current fiscal policy is unsustainable - this is one of the few areas where groups ranging from the Brookings Institution to the Heritage Foundation agree. Our national debt is $9 trillion and mounting rapidly; as a nation we have flatly refused to make responsible choices about either taxes or spending, We've done almost nothing to deal with rising health care costs or the retirement of the baby boomers. If we doing continue doing nothing,, in about 20 years our debt will be outpacing the rest of the economy, and 15 years beyond that the government will have no money for anything other than Medicare, Social Security and interest on the money we've already borrowed.

One of the most insidious things about our long-term fiscal problem is that the inexorable logic of the numbers will slowly, inevitably, rob the American people of their ability to make choices. There won't be money for a progressive agenda or a conservative agenda or any kind of agenda. We'll be leaving our children a trashed house with no money to fix it up again. And when the public can't set priorities for their government, they're not citizens in the broad sense of the word anymore. They're just passengers.

This doesn't mean that controlling the budget is the only priority. We can do other things. But we have to be choose wisely, very wisely, what our priorities are.

The next four years are critical for the country's fiscal future. We deserve to have the presidential candidates treat us like rational human beings. We deserve a news media that asks the tough questions, so we can understand what's going on. We deserve to be told not just what candidates would like to do, but about the tradeoffs the country will almost certainly have to make if they get their druthers. And then we, as citizens, will have to make some sensible, realistic choices .

You know, like grownups.