Congress is back in town this week, and will resume its power struggle with the administration. The president may be a lame duck, but he closed out the 2007 legislative year by winning a budget battle. It was an important show of presidential strength for an administration entering its final year. Yet sadly, it was no big win for fiscal conservatism, a philosophy that’s been under assault.

Just how bad has the start of this millennium been for budget hawks? Think back to 1999. The United States was engaged in a war in Kosovo, we were worried about Y2K, and president Clinton was entering his last year in office. Total federal spending was $1.7 trillion.

Since that time we’ve added more than another trillion dollars to the federal budget. Even after adjusting for inflation, spending has increased by about a third over the last eight years.

There are understandable reasons for some of the increase in our budget: Most notably, America’s population has grown – though not nearly as fast as spending. The total population in 1999 was 273 million; today it’s 304 million. Yet the federal government now spends about $9,000 per person, nearly $3,000 more than was spent in 1999. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are part of the reason for the federal budget’s tremendous growth, but domestic spending has also been on the rise: Non-defense discretionary spending grew by more than a third in real terms since 1999.

Imagine if Washington had grown only at the rate of inflation plus population growth since 1999. Not only would America have no federal deficit, but we would have hundreds of billions of dollars of surplus. Even if politicians had merely held the line on non-defense discretionary spending, our deficit would be nearly $100 billion lower.

Policymakers can justify some of the additional spending as necessary in the post-911 world. But just as surely as we’ve needed investments in homeland security and intelligence, plenty of the federal budget has deserved cuts. And let’s be honest: Returning to 1999 spending wouldn’t exactly be a journey to Spartan frugality. The Citizens for Government Waste found $12 billion of pork that year, which would have been a good place to start the trimming.

Nearly all of the current crop of presidential aspirants has tried to claim the mantel of “fiscal responsibility.” Democrats primarily use the term to call for rolling back tax cuts, ostensibly in hopes of eliminating the deficit, while Republicans refer to a return to spending restraint. Yet the real budgetary challenge for the next President won’t be the yearly tug-of-war with Congress over appropriations or tax cuts. In truth, our fiscal future largely will be determined by entitlement spending.

This year, less than half the federal budget was actively allocated by our elected officials; the rest was on autopilot. Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security accounted for more than 40 percent of total spending by Washington. As the baby-boomers retirement accelerates, these costs will skyrocket. The nonpartisan Concord Coalition projects that without serious reform (primarily of these big three entitlement programs), mandatory spending and interest on debt could consume all federal revenue by 2020. Nothing would be left for other domestic priorities, even for defense.

For the most part, the 2008 presidential candidates (with the exception of Senator Fred Thompson, who offered a detailed plan for reforming Social Security) have avoided any real discussion of how to bring these ballooning costs under control. Senator Obama was savaged by the left-wing punditry for daring even to suggest entitlement spending might be a problem.

A serious conversation is unlikely to happen unless Americans wake up to reality. The media, which obsesses about “gotcha” issues of marginal importance, should ask tough questions about the candidates’ vision for the federal budget. America needs a president who is committed to fiscal discipline – something far beyond the usual throwaway lines about eliminating government “waste” and reducing “unnecessary” growth in domestic spending. The next president will have to grapple with the runaway growth of entitlement spending, or the American people will one day be in for a rude awakening.

– Carrie Lukas is vice president for policy and economics at the Independent Women’s Forum and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Women, Sex, and Feminism.