One of the reasons the federal budget is out of control is that the budget-makers aren't always in touch with reality.
That much became even clearer a few days ago than it already was when the National Economic Commission - a blue-ribbon panel designed to find answers for dealing with the deficit problem - held its first public meeting.The commission's dozen prominent members, referred to as the "12 wise men," were stunned by testimony about the budget-making process and the "artful" accounting involved in the budget.
How artful? Well, the congressional budget process sometimes actually turns budget cuts into spending increases. This is done, for example, by over-estimating needs by 50 percent, and then cutting by 20 percent, thus allowing members of Congress to be on both sides of the deficit issue, claiming to be both frugal and generous at the same time.
"If we did this in business, they'd lock us up," said Lee Iacocca, the Chrysler Motors chairman who is a member of the commission.
That is precisely the problem. Federal budget-making is governed more by political expediency than economic reality.
One of the reasons for having the panel is to provide some brutally honest answers while letting Congress avoid the political heat.
There is some precedent for this. In 1983, a blue-ribbon commission was named to study the touchy issue of Social Security. Congress and the president used the group's recommendations to raise Social Security taxes - something they wouldn't have done on their own - and stabilized the finances of the retirement insurance system.
Dealing with budget deficits will be more difficult than it was to deal with the single issue of Social Security. It will require a mix of spending cuts, elimination of programs, and higher taxes.
Is Congress up to the challenge? Unhappily, past performance indicates that Congress usually is very good at two things - running for office, and running for cover.
Even so, the use of a blue-ribbon panel to deal with the budget deserves to be tried. It seems to offer one of the few prospects for getting Congress to put sound economics ahead of short-sighted politics when drawing this nation's fiscal blueprints.