The coming two years should be among the most fascinating in U.S. history.
Our first Congress (launched in the Revolutionary War era before adoption of the Constitution) was born with borrowed money -- from the French and the Dutch -- and its members were criticized as warrior dilettantes.
Our incoming Congress (112th) now faces a debt crisis that the usual tricks simply cannot solve.
We are all familiar with the tricks of Congress, the biggest being the printing of money with nothing to back it up but the trust people have in government.
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That's becoming a skinny reed.
Then there's passing the bills on to later generations. We've all caught onto that dodge.
And there's that trick so old it has become a clich: "Borrowing from Peter to pay Paul."
That one is evidenced by Congress in "borrowing" money set aside, in trust, for specific programs and using it for the general fund.
For example, the Social Security system isn't broken, as some would have us believe. If Congress had left the trust fund alone, it would be as healthy as a fresh-picked apple.
Congress raided the air safety trust fund the same way.
So, that's Part 1 of the drama and pain of the next two years -- watching Congress wrestle with its centuries-old compulsion to borrow money.
Part 2 also will be a dilly.
As those of us who live near Hanford well know, members of Congress are very much like 5-year-olds.
They love to get a new puppy, but they soon forget it's their job to keep the puppy fed.
New programs proliferate, but as they age they lose their charm. For members of Congress, it's much more fun to build a new building ("I know, we'll name it after our representative!") than pay the heating bill.
Big, really big programs are going to have to be cut. Yes, Social Security included. Medicare, too. Here are a few other areas where cuts will have to be made (in no particular order):
w The military.
w Public Health.
w Road building and maintenance.
w The intelligence services.
w The Transportation Security Administration.
w the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
w The State Department.
w Foreign aid.
w The Justice Department.
w Mine safety oversight.
w Oil platform oversight.
w The Food and Drug Administration.
w And on and on ...
Foreign aid may jump out at you as easy pickings in the above list, but remember, we owe so much money to so many foreign governments that if we start cutting back they may just do the same thing, to our detriment.
We hope the coming debates over all this go beyond the simplistic.
"Government should be run like a business," leaves out the fact that almost every business must have a line of credit at the bank to meet payroll in slack seasons, that few houses are ever erected by builders with money out of their own pockets, that NASA will never get to Mars if it has to save up the cash to do it and that most fundamental research into the nature of man and the universe is paid for through government funds.
We face a time where we must dim the lights, scale things back and expect more pain.
Congress can't continue to play political games and posture for the cameras while angling to pull one more trick.
That bag is empty.