Congress and the president handled the "fiscal cliff" negotiations with equal parts histrionics and ham-fistedness. But that doesn't prove that Washington is now haplessly dysfunctional. Rather, it was the entirely predictable consequence of this moment in history.
What's unique about our time is our nation's unprecedented fiscal imbalance — the product of an overindulgent Uncle Sam and our aging population. Beginning with FDR's New Deal, generations of lawmakers have constructed an edifice of federal programs that promised to care for us in ways that were viable only so long as the demographics of postwar America remained unchanged.
But those demographics have shifted. Between 1940 and 2010, the percentage of Americans age 65 and older doubled. With these and other changes, the promises of popular programs such as Social Security and Medicare (and other, more controversial welfare programs) have become fiscally unsustainable.
There has been another major change as well: the decades-long ideological realignment of our two national parties. Today, virtually all conservative lawmakers have found a home under the banner of the Republican Party, while their liberal counterparts have settled in the Democratic fold. The fiscal imbalance, coupled with the ideological realignment, has the makings of a nasty brew.
Liberals see Social Security, Medicare and hundreds of other government guarantees as sacred pacts with the American citizen not to be tampered with. Conservatives see these same guarantees as containing the seeds of our national undoing, a financial doomsday machine that will place a crushing burden on the American worker — especially today's younger workers. The very viability of our Sacred Union stands in the balance.
Little wonder, then, that Washington appears so dysfunctional and the passions so raw. The views are diametrically opposite. And so much is at stake.
But Congress will, ultimately, resolve these problems for one simple reason: math.
The American people have only a finite amount of money and, therefore, there is a limit as to how much of it Washington can spend. Once Congress wakes up to that fact, it will get serious about addressing the root of our fiscal problem: its spending.
~Michael G. Franc is vice president for government studies at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in USA Today.