WHEN I WAS a kid, an older neighborhood teenager delivering the afternoon newspaper flung it and hit my head so hard, I saw stars. I angrily pulled the paper open, only to see a headline that announced that President Kennedy's federal budget would exceed $100 billion for the first time. It was the early 1960s, and I remember my father shaking his head as he read the paper that evening.
Fifty years later, that budget has grown almost 38-fold, and I am the one shaking my head. But my biggest frustration is that transportation and infrastructure spending, key to the vibrancy of our industry, has fallen so far as a percentage of the overall budget. This has occurred while our nation's bridges, highways, and related infrastructure are starting to exceed their design lives.
There are a several startling facts about our federal budget, including its sheer magnitude. Did you know the U.S. government spent $400 million an hour last year? Also:
- Almost two-thirds of annual federal spending goes out the door without any vote by Congress.
- About 63% of the budget is on autopilot. Congress passes legislation every year to keep the government operating, the phones answered, and the National Parks open, but much of the money the government spends doesn't require a vote. Social Security benefits get deposited, health-care bills for Medicare for the elderly and Medicaid for the poor are paid, and food stamps are issued. Farm-subsidy checks are written, and interest payments are made on our Treasury bonds.
- The Urban Institute reports that in 2009, for the first time, every dollar of revenues had been committed before Congress walked in the door. The government's total take was only enough to pay for promises that had been made in the past, such as interest, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and so on. For everything else, the government had to borrow.
- The U.S. defense budget is greater than the combined defense budgets of the next 17 largest nations.
- About $1 of every $4 the government spends goes to health care, and that is rising at a frightening rate.
- Firing every federal government employee wouldn't save enough to cut the deficit in half.
- The federal government borrowed 36 cents of every dollar it spent last year, but had no trouble raising the money. Even though red ink is flowing now at a rate of $1.2 trillion a year, the U.S. Treasury is borrowing at interest rates lower than at any time in at least half a century.
Yet spending for highways and infrastructure and state and local governments grants for everything from schools in poor neighborhoods to sewage treatment plants, only totaled about $220 billion.
As we head into the election season, we need to re-double our efforts as an industry to convince Washington that investing in infrastructure creates jobs and yields lasting benefits for the economy, including increasing growth in the long run. Upgrading roads, bridges, and other infrastructure puts people to work who earn good, middle-class incomes, which expands the consumer base for businesses. These investments also pave the way for long-term economic growth by lowering the cost of doing business and making U.S. companies more competitive.
Congress and the next administration have a challenge ahead of them in dealing with deficits and tax reform. But more importantly, they need to be reminded that construction spending is key to our nation's prosperity.