The last two weeks showed just how hard it will be to dig the country out of its multitrillion-dollar fiscal hole.
The Senate rejected, 53-46, the creation of a "fiscal future" commission designed to bring sanity to the federal budget process and out-of-control spending.
The good news is that this wasn't a party-line vote -- though still short of the 60 votes needed for passage. The bill, sponsored by Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Judd Gregg, R-N.H., was backed by Democrats and Republicans. Both sides of the aisle see a problem and a need to act.
The bad news is that some opposition divided along ideological lines: liberals worried about cuts in social programs, conservatives seeing higher taxes.
The fears on both sides are justified, according to David Walker, former U.S. comptroller general and head of the Government Accountability Office under Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush.
"We're going to have to do both of those things and more to put our financial house in order," Walker said in an interview last week.
That's one of many messages included in Walker's new book, "Comeback America: Turning the Country Around and Restoring Fiscal Responsibility."
The federal government keeps promising more than it can deliver -- an eye-popping $63 trillion worth and growing. (That number includes the trillion-plus annual budget deficit, more than $12 trillion in federal debt -- held by investors and trust funds for Social Security and Medicare -- and well over $43 trillion for benefits promised through entitlement programs.) "What's going on is not only fiscally irresponsible," Walker says, "it's morally reprehensible and downright un-American."
The nation is abandoning its tradition of one generation striving to make life better for the next, Walker says, citing downward trends in average income, education level, and health status.
In years past, when Walker and others delivered this message, Americans were shocked at the numbers, but not inspired to act. That has changed.
"People had not woken up yet," Walker says. "They are now awake." The type of citizen action that Walker calls for in his book was on display at this year's tea party rallies and town hall meetings.
And the fuss wasn't exclusively about health care.
"Health care was just the latest and biggest example of government wanting to grow more when it's already made tens of trillions of dollars worth of promises it can't keep," Walker says.
Congress ignored the message and made matters worse by blatantly buying support from senators like Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and unions. These "sweetheart deals," Walker says, confirmed that "Washington is out of touch and out of control."
What citizens see plainly, but Washington ignores, is that there is no such thing as too big to fail anymore, Walker says. In the last two years, excessive debt and spending crippled giants in the banking, insurance, and auto industries. Americans see the federal government on the same road.
Here's where that road leads: In "Comeback America," Walker estimates that the 31 percent of Americans' income that now goes to taxes (21 percent for feds, 10 for state and local governments), will grow to at least 53 percent by 2040. Even then, he writes, "all of our federal tax revenues will add up to enough to cover only our two biggest expenses: interest on our debt and Medicare and Medicaid. Everything else -- Social Security, defense, education, road building, you name it -- will fail to be funded."
Walker well understands citizen concerns about spending and debt. But he also worries about any debate that mimics the Senate vote -- no spending cuts vs. no new taxes. Such "ideological stalemates" will only worsen the country's fiscal problems, he says.
"The people on the far right and the far left are out of touch with reality," Walker says. "There's something called math that people have to come to grips with." If you're a politician or citizen ready to get a grip -- on budgets, spending, entitlement and health-care reform -- the ideas in "Comeback America" are a good starting point for a discussion.
Ferris is assistant editor of the Editorial Page of the Philadelphia Inquirer.