Grab your silly hats and order some cotton candy — the circus is back in town. The setting is not the traditional Big Top but rather the U.S. Capitol, where the performers will risk the continued operation of the U.S. government in an ongoing game of political chicken.

Unable to pass a budget for the 2011 fiscal year, Congress has resorted to stopgap measures known as continuing resolutions to keep the government’s doors open while they squabble over spending priorities and jockey for political advantage. The expiration of each continuing resolution brings the possibility of a government shutdown; the current measure expires April 8.

The game pits Republicans, who are looking to trim federal spending, vs. Democrats trying to preserve many of the programs being targeted by the GOP. Complicating matters is the so-called Tea Party, a newly empowered activist wing of the Republican Party seeking deeper spending cuts than the GOP’s leadership.

Everyone agrees the U.S. government must rein in its spending, currently underwritten by nations like China, who in addition to earning interest on their loans eventually will want to be repaid. By all accounts, financial disaster looms if nothing is done. But U.S. politicians are ignoring the elephant (no pun intended) in the room: entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare, spending on which is set to skyrocket as the baby boom generation retires. Lacking the political courage or will to take on entitlements, they focus on domestic discretionary spending, which consumes roughly 12 percent of the U.S. federal budget.

Presumably, neither Republicans nor Democrats want a government shutdown. Not only would that prove politically disastrous to one side or the other, it would be hugely expensive due to the cost of stopping and then restarting countless programs. This is particularly problematic for space programs, where there is rarely room for error when it comes to staying on budget and where schedule is often critical. The United States already faces a gap in weather satellite coverage, for example, and this likely would be exacerbated by a government shutdown.

Recent signals that a compromise has been reached are only somewhat encouraging; until the ink is dry on a deal that funds the government through September the threat of a shutdown will continue to lurk. It’s the most irresponsible of high-wire acts — one that endangers the spectators at least as much as the performers.