Has Washington stopped caring about the cost of its spending spree?

Guest Editorial
When does our money become worthless? Is it when we can be glad that the federal government’s $1.17 trillion deficit through 10 months is smaller than it was at the same time last year?

When do we stop caring about our future? When we throw $26 billion at states — even if it means robbing from another federal program to do so? When a local college stands to receive $600,000 because its students aren’t ready to learn?

Anyone who balances a checkbook should appreciate the absurdity of what is happening in Washington, D.C. A cynic would say lawmakers are spending our taxes on goodies because of the upcoming elections. A Republican would say Democrats can’t control themselves.

Both might be right, except that 2010 — call it “The Year Congress Let It All Hang Loose” — is really just a continuation of what we’ve seen in 2009, 2008 and, really, the entire last decade.

It feels like something has grown horribly cancerous in our politics, that Washington lawmakers can no longer agree on or address the spending that promises a painful future for generations to come.

The cost of paying this surging debt is enormous, and yet all we get are assurances the red ink will start to dry when the economy gets better. Or maybe that future Congresses and future presidents will rein in spending. What reason have our current representatives given us to believe?

Government always is an imperfect creature. It often spends more than it should because of the influence of politics. But there’s evidence that the people who are making choices with our money are not valuing their decisions.

How else to explain the blank check that Congress issued last week for state governments? Michigan gets nearly $700 million to help Medicaid and bring back teachers — never mind that state government rightly helped ease teacher layoffs by sweetening retirement perks.

A decade ago, the federal government had a surplus. It was the result of a strong economy, but also a president, Bill Clinton, who crossed the aisle to work with his political rivals, the Republicans. They reformed welfare and addressed federal spending.

That’s how it used to be done, with Democrats and Republicans occasionally putting the public good first. Out-of-control federal spending is the next crisis facing Washington, and members of both parties will have to find common ground again.

Can it happen? We hope so. It can start with the elections that take place 10 weeks from now.