As Washington endures trench warfare over the looming vote to raise the nation's debt ceiling, you may be feeling a sense of deja vu. That's because we have, indeed, seen some variation of this all year: one side threatening to withhold its votes unless it sees massive cuts to the federal budget; the other criticizing draconian budget-slashing; and both sides fretting about the other's fiscal irresponsibility.
Yet once the debt ceiling has been dealt with, we'll see some variation of this debate again in the fall. The reason is simple. Our political leaders are arguing about more than staving off a government shutdown or raising the debt ceiling or even cutting government spending. They're really arguing about the size, scope and ambitions of the federal government.
This has been an underlying bone of contention since the nation's founding -- remember the debate between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton over a national bank, federal responsibilities for Revolutionary War debt, and other such matters? Now, of course, the specifics are different, but the basic questions haven't changed all that much: How big should the federal government be? What's the rightful mix of public vs. private responsibility? Where should power lie on the federal-state-local spectrum? What really is our vision for the country?
I vividly remember sitting in the House chamber the night, 15 years ago, that President Bill Clinton declared, "The era of big government is over." The line drew explosive applause from both sides of the aisle, highlighting how politically popular the sentiment is. But it proved, in the end, to be quite wrong.
There are powerful forces that keep government growing: wars, defense, entitlements, the bureaucracy, lobbyists in the private sector pounding the halls of Congress for government favors, and, of course, the American people, who expect a great deal from their government. Democrats, on the whole, tend to see nothing wrong with federal activity and often want to extend its reach. But even many Republicans, while they don't like taxes, have still pushed for growth in the public sector, whether it's the military or a Medicare drug prescription plan.
And all of this is aided by the usual response to national challenges: a commission of bright, well-meaning individuals who carefully study the matter and then recommend new government spending to combat cancer or rein in flooding on the Mississippi River or do whatever the cause of the moment demands.
The key question is, how does this get turned around? I suspect the answer, despite all the political fireworks we'll see this year and next, lies not in any grand legislative solution that will resolve all our fiscal woes in a single package, but in incremental changes that, over time, can make a difference.
Some will be politically difficult, such as reforms to entitlement programs, cuts to programs that have definite constituencies but may not be central to the national interest, and privatizing services in a way that serves the public's needs and boosts efficiency.
Others are politically simpler, but difficult to implement: reforming the federal government so it is better managed, more technologically adept, more efficient, more transparent and able to do more with less (words every politician loves to use, but has trouble putting into practice).
None of this will be easy. But if you're part of an American public that is growing ever more worried about the federal deficit and the government's debt burden, which would you rather see: A unending series of attention-getting arguments that never seem to get at the basic forces driving the growth of government? Or a profound determination to roll up our sleeves and instill efficiency and competition in all aspects of government, pursue entitlement and tax reform, and make other long-term fixes to the forces driving the size and scope of the federal government?
Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.