When Congress voted to cover prescription-drug costs for Medicare beneficiaries, President Bush got a chance to boast of his Trumanesque buck-stopping as the nation's top executive. "We have a responsibility in Washington to solve problems and not pass them on," he said. As the largest expansion of the program since its inception in 1965, the $400 billion plan was a big solution indeed. But for a band of deficit hawks and rainy-day worriers in Washington, it was a horror--the latest evidence that in the past five years they have become voices in the wilderness. How to keep the federal budget in check--an issue that was once central to both Democratic and Republican politics--has been shunted aside, leaving fiscal conservatives at think tanks across the country fretting over how to make their case as the deficit grows to $500 billion and those in charge seem inclined only to add to it. "There's going to have to be a crisis to get people to pay attention," says one of the leading members of the tribe. "And there's going to have to be another Ross Perot."
Where are you, Ross Perot? The Texas millionaire who won 19% of the vote in 1992 after teaching the country to get angry about the budget deficit should be banging his spoon on the table right now. Or a draft-Perot movement should be under way. (Perot declined to talk to TIME.) In addition to the new burden for Medicare, discretionary spending has increased 27% in the past two years. Much of that has gone to fighting the war on terrorism, but funds have also been spent on new benefits for veterans, subsidies for farmers and aid to low-performing schools and needy students. Pork-barrel spending is also on the rise. In the past two years, it has gone up 48%, according to one watchdog group, including millions of dollars in the farm bill that went to those infamous mohair subsidies, and politicians of both parties are quietly delighted that the public no longer seems to care. But economists are concerned that with each new trip to the trough, lawmakers are accelerating the arrival of a fiscal disaster. "The U.S. budget is out of control," the Wall Street investment firm Goldman Sachs & Co. warned in a newsletter to clients late last month.