WASHINGTON — Congress has become the butt of late-night comedians for waiting until the last minute to do any work, yet its procrastination involves something more than fecklessness: The issue over which it keeps stumbling not only separates its two parties into warring camps, but also divides them internally.
At its core, the debate over the size of government and how to pay for it pits the interests of the huge baby boom generation, its members now mostly in their 50s and 60s, against the needs of the even larger cohort in their teens and 20s. With limited government money to spend, how much should go to paying medical bills for retirees versus subsidizing college loans, job training and health care for young families with children?
As they grapple with that, the Republicans, calling themselves the party of small government, increasingly rely on the votes of people dependent on entitlement spending. And the Democrats, the party that created the massive government programs for retirees, have more and more become the political home of the young.
The part of the debate that ended Tuesday night mostly involved how limited the government's resources would be. Congress agreed to add about $620 billion in federal revenue over the next decade. But the vote locked in place the Bush-era tax cuts for everyone with incomes below $400,000 a year, a decision that will deny the Treasury about $4 trillion over the same period.
That vote did not end the tax debate, but it did settle the biggest part of it. White House officials say that this spring, when the next budget deadline arrives, President Barack Obama will seek several hundred billion dollars more over the next 10 years. But even if he prevails over Republican opposition, the increment would be relatively small.
Increasingly, therefore, the coming fights over the budget will focus on the topic that both sides have shied away from: spending on retirees.
Both parties prefer to focus voters' attention elsewhere. Democrats like to blame the rise in the national debt on the George W. Bush-era tax cuts — 98 percent of which Congress just voted to renew — and the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Republicans like to point to Obama's economic stimulus efforts.
Each of those policies has contributed to the debt, but only to a limited degree. The real driver behind the government's long-term debt problem comes from the huge number of people entering retirement.
Over the past 40 years, the federal government has spent, on average, about 18.5 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product — the overall output of the economy. At the current rate of increase, Social Security and Medicare alone would equal 16 percent of the economy by the time the number of retirees stops growing, about 25 years from now, the Congressional Budget Office projects. Most of the increase would come from the cost of health care.
Democrats have long championed the government's social safety net. Medicare, passed under President Lyndon B. Johnson, and Social Security, under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, stand as two of the party's proudest policy achievements.
Yet Democrats' strongest support now comes from younger voters. Obama in particular has focused on the needs of that constituency, and he has shown more willingness than many in his party to consider trimming the cost of retirement programs. On Tuesday night, as he talked about the cost of Medicare, he repeated his call for government to spend more on “rebuilding our roads and bridges and providing investments in areas like education and job training” — the spending preferences of the young.
And for a change, Democrats may be less divided than Republicans. The GOP's ideology of self-sufficiency and suspicion of big government programs has run directly up against the self-interest of its core constituency: voters in their 50s, 60s and 70s.
In November's presidential election, Mitt Romney won 56 percent of voters aged 65 and older. He took only 45 percent of those younger than 45, according to exit polling.
Given the conflict between ideology and the priorities of their key constituents, Republicans, not surprisingly, have had difficulty enunciating a clear policy. In the presidential campaign, the GOP backed the budget plan proposed by vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., which aimed to reduce Medicare spending. Simultaneously, Romney denounced Obama for trying to trim the program and promised to spend $716billion more than Obama on it.
Over the past month, the GOP has been similarly at odds with itself; as a result, Republican negotiators repeatedly declined to put forward a plan for restraining spending.
As the budget debate moves forward, the absence of a clear plan will be a weakness for Republicans that White House officials hope to exploit.
“There's difficulty in figuring out a position within the Republican conference,” said Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Party leaders have been willing to vote on general budget guidelines, she noted, but “not actual budget cuts, not actual allocations.”