STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Let's come back to Washington now, where a vote is expected today in the House on the roughly $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 and Medicare and the military and all other government services. But it's only a budget blueprint.
So, if you don't mind, NPR's Andrea Seabrook is asking the real question. Who cares?
ANDREA SEABROOK: 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. And that's when I pounced with this pop quiz, how big is the federal budget?
Unidentified Woman #1: Five thousand?
SEABROOK: How much?
Unidentified Woman #2: Seventy-five million?
SEABROOK: What if I were to tell you it was $3 trillion?
Unidentified Group: Wow.
SEABROOK: Do you have any idea how much $3 trillion is?
Unidentified Woman #3: No.
SEABROOK: This school group from California includes…
KATE(ph): Kate (unintelligible).
AMANDA ZITO(ph): Amanda Zito.
KATHLEEN ZITO(ph): Kathleen Zito.
ELAINE(ph): Elaine (unintelligible).
SEABROOK: Like many of my victims, they're also bowled over when I tell them that almost half of the budget, 40 percent of it, is immediately sucked up by retirement payments and health care for the elderly and the poor - that's Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid. 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 over $2 trillion.
Mr. ROBERT BIXBY (Executive Director, The Concord Coalition): They are huge numbers and people can't make any sense out of them.
SEABROOK: That's Robert Bixby, the head of The Concord Coalition, a non-partisan budget watchdog.
Mr. BIXBY: The domestic programs - education, transportation, justice, environment - things that a lot of people think of as government only make up about 17 percent of the budget.
SEABROOK: 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.
Mr. BIXBY: Even if they fail to pass a plan, they have to raise taxes and spend the money that they're going to spend. They just do it without any particular plan. So it really is kind of better if they have a plan about what they're going to do, otherwise it just sort of happens helter-skelter.
SEABROOK: Okay. But this year the House and Senate are passing budgets. And now the newly elected Democrats are squawking about the deficits?
Mr. JAMES HORNEY (Director of Federal Fiscal Policy, Center of Budget and Policy Priorities): We're looking at deficits are going to start exploding in the coming decade.
SEABROOK: This is James Horney of the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think-tank.
Mr. HORNEY: And we would be facing, within the next 50 years, unprecedented levels of deficits and debts.
SEABROOK: If, Horney says, health care costs keep rising so fast and Congress keeps spending so much on Social Security and health care. True, the deficit right now is relatively low as a percentage of the overall economy. But watch this space, those pesky baby boomers are starting to retire in droves.
Mr. HORNEY: That matters because if we have that kind of explosion of deficits and debts, we're not going to be able to invest in the economy the way we should. And over that long period either the economy is going to slow and the standard of living is not going to be as great in the future as it should be, or we are going to have to borrow more and more from abroad.
SEABROOK: Horney points out 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 now? 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.
Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.