The public seems split between people who no longer listen to Washington officials about taxes, spending and deficits -- and those who no longer believe what they have to say.
That's where the nation finds itself as officials in Washington rush to the microphones to blame one another for the looming "sequester" and its $85 billion in meat-ax spending cuts set to begin Friday. At this point Americans don't even much care which party is more at fault, or whether the cuts take effect, despite the admininstration's predictions of doom if they do.
There's been one ginned-up crisis after the other -- 2011's debt ceiling fiasco, January's fiscal cliff and now the sequester -- yet Washington still hasn't addressed the real problem: Long-term deficits are being driven largely by Medicare, Medicaid and other health care spending.
Fixing this problem means agreeing to a plan to contain government health care spending and to reform the tax code by lowering rates while closing loopholes and limiting deductions enough to raise needed revenue. Congress also needs to ensure Social Security's long term solvency. None of that will be easy politically, but it's the job that has to be done.
Everything else is just political theater, and it is increasingly losing its audience. How else to explain the muted public reaction to the cuts in air traffic controllers, food inspectors, aid to states and more that Obama ominously warns will begin Friday under the sequester? According to a recent Pew Research poll, only one in four people has heard much at all about the scheduled cuts.
In previous crises, all that really happened was President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) talked about a grand bargain to rein in federal budget deficits for the long haul, only to give up in frustration when Democrats resisted entitlement cuts and Republicans insisted on no new taxes. Some stop-gap measure was then enacted to get through to the next showdown. Mark your calendar: There's another one coming March 27, when the continuing resolution authorizing the government to spend money expires. Get ready for fevered warnings of government shutdown.
Health care, Social Security and interest on the $16.4 trillion national debt account for almost $6 of every $10 the federal government spends. There's no realistic way to eliminate the $3.5 trillion budget's $1 trillion-plus in annual deficits by cutting mainly from what's left -- military and other domestic discretionary spending. But that's all Congress has been doing.
It has managed to achieve about $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction over the next 10 years ($900 billion in cuts, $600 billion in new taxes), with another $1.2 trillion to be cut over the decade via the sequester.
But federal spending is at the highest level in six decades as a percentage of the nation's economic output. By the same measure, federal tax revenue is at its lowest ebb in six decades. It will take both less spending and more revenue to stanch the red ink, especially as the huge number of baby boomers retire and collect Social Security and Medicare benefits.
The president and members of Congress should stop the tiresome grandstanding and get real about doing their jobs.