The yearly deficit has topped $1 trillion for several years running. Even America, as economically powerful as it is, can't run on a credit card forever. Interest on the federal debt now accounts for about 10 percent of the budget.
The only lawmakers beating the deficit drum are far-right Republicans in the House, many of whom are using their legitimate concern about profligacy to advance positions on social issues or to attack support for Ukraine, spending that is overwhelmingly in the national interest.
There's no hope without a clear statement from both parties that current budgets are unsustainable, and a will to establish a process that provides a chance of producing some sort of grand bargain.
Some will recall how the U.S. had too many military bases and needed to close many of them. Parochial action by lawmakers intent on preserving bases in their districts got in the way. Congress in 1990 established a commission to recommend closures and required legislators to vote them down to keep them from taking effect. It's worked.
The 1980s featured several deficit-reduction efforts involving budget hawks from both parties, like 1985's Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law, which sought to tamp down the large deficits during the Reagan era. That didn't work, but Clinton-era tax increases combined with the economic boom of the 1990s produced budget surpluses.
Since the dawn of the 21st century, however, a combination of ill-advised tax cuts, wars and economic crises and pandering to big-spending progressive agendas have brought deficit spending back with a vengeance.
As was the case nearly four decades ago, lawmakers from both parties have to buy into the project in order for it to have any chance to succeed. Likewise, the president has to provide vocal support.
Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, federal insurance programs whose spending is on autopilot, will have to be part of any cuts, since together they account for 45 percent of federal outlays. Those safety-net programs have proven to be political "third rails," so any trims to them likely would have to be needs-based.
A very tall order, we understand. The professional political class believes it's impossible. The current state of our politics backs that up. Donald Trump, the likely GOP nominee for president, added more than $8 trillion to the debt, the most ever piled up in a single presidential term. Trillion-dollar deficits have continued under Joe Biden. Neither is a likely voice for fiscal sanity.
The true day of reckoning is a ways off. But facing it only gets more expensive, and requires more sacrifice, the longer the country waits.