A vote is expected Thursday in the House of Representatives on a guideline for next year's $3 trillion federal budget. The Senate passed its version last week. The resolution outlines how to spend hundreds of billions of dollars in tax money on Social Security, Medicare, the military and all other government services.
This number is really too big to wrap your head around.
Spring draws crowds of tourists through the halls of Congress. They shuffle among the marble statues and stop under the Capitol Dome to stare up, up, up. That's when I pounce with this pop quiz. "How big is the federal budget?"
School children from California guess: "A lot!"
"What if I were to tell you it was $3 trillion?"
"Whoa," the girls say in unison.
"Do you have any idea how much $3 trillion is?"
"Nooo," they reply.
Like many of my victims, they're also bowled over when I tell them that almost half the budget — 40 percent of it — is immediately sucked up by retirement payments and health care for the elderly, poor and disabled. Another 20 percent goes to the military. Throw in Homeland Security, veterans and other national security programs, and you've already taken up 80 percent of the federal budget — or more than $2 trillion.
"They're huge numbers and people can't make any sense out of them," says Robert Bixby, the head of the Concord Coalition, a non-partisan budget watchdog. "The domestic programs, education transportation, justice, environment — things people think of when they think of government — only make up 17 percent of the budget."
Bixby agreed to join me on this bench under the Capitol Dome, to answer a question for me.
See, the Budget Resolution going through Congress these days doesn't really spend any money. It's just a kind of map or summary of how much money Congress plans to dole out to each department and agency in the government. So if it's only a plan, my question is: Who cares? I mean, last year Congress didn't even pass a budget.
"Even if they failed to pass a plan, they still raise the taxes and spend the money that they're gonna spend, they just do it without any particular plan," Bixby explains. "So it really is kind of better if they have a plan about what they're going to do it, otherwise it sort of happens helter skelter."
One of the plans the new Congress has passed is pay-go, a rule that won't allow new spending without new revenue — or cuts elsewhere — to pay for it. That's because they think we can't keep ignoring deficit spending.
James Horney of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank, says, "We're looking at deficits that are gonna start exploding in the coming decades, and we would be facing within the next 50 years unprecedented levels of deficits and debt."
That's if health care costs keep rising so fast and Congress keeps spending so much on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. True, the deficit right now is relatively low, as a percentage of the overall economy. But the massive number of baby boomers who are starting to retire in droves could change that.
"That matters because if we have that kind of explosion of deficits and debt, we're not going to be able to invest in the economy the way we should," Horney says. "And over that long period, either the economy is going to slow and the standard of living is not going to be as good as it should be, or we're going to have to borrow more and more from abroad."
Horney points at the mingling tourists in the Capitol Rotunda in front of us. They all have nice clothes, some kids are listening to iPods. Almost everyone has a digital camera. These are material examples of comfortable living — and that's what's at stake, he says.
So, who cares about the budget? You should, says Horney, because debt is already soaking up the government's ability to spark economic growth and investment, much less pay for what we already expect of it.