Washington Insider
Let’s put a ‘trillion’ into perspective

By Ron Nofziger
OOIDA Director of government affairs


At the end of August the White House and the Congressional Budget Office released their midsession forecast for this year’s federal deficit and estimations for the future of our national debt.

Their projections were bleak. In fact, more discouraging than most folks thought they would be.

The independent and nonpartisan CBO predicts that the federal deficit will reach approximately $1.6 trillion this year. In historical terms, this is the largest deficit since the end of World War II. The CBO noted that the significant jump in the federal deficit has a lot to do with the economic downturn, including sharp drops in tax collections and large increases in government spending that were intended to turn the economy in a positive direction.

For their part, the White House joined the CBO’s less-than-cheery economic chorus by projecting that the federal government will run up $9 trillion in deficits over the coming decade and in the process come close to doubling the national debt (currently over $11 trillion).

While Republicans are jumping on these numbers to make the point that Democrats who currently control Congress are fiscally irresponsible, Democrats are pointing out that the Republicans share the blame from when they controlled the government.

Let’s put a “trillion” into perspective. There are 1 million millions in a trillion. As former President Ronald Reagan explained, “If you had a stack of thousand-dollar bills in your hand only 4 inches high, you’d be a millionaire.” However, “A trillion dollars would be a stack of thousand-dollar bills 67 miles high.”

Numbers that high should be of great concern to all Americans, especially lawmakers and government officials. For better or worse, they will affect what happens in Washington, DC, for the rest of this year and into 2010.

In fact, they will likely have an impact on the vast majority of legislative measures that come before Congress and on the Obama administration’s policy decisions. For starters, the deficit and debt projections will certainly put a damper on major initiatives such as the Democrat’s climate change bill (cap and trade) and health care reform efforts.

I predict the deficit and debt projections will negatively affect some government actions that are of specific interest to trucking, but they may cause some good things to happen as well.

First the bad. The last big “highway bill,” SAFETEA-LU, is set to expire this year and Congress must pass a new long-term highway bill or do a short-term extension of existing federal surface transportation programs.

Since a new long-term highway bill will come with a price tag of around $450 billion to $500 billion, the deficit and debt numbers will likely curb congressional motivation to pass it anytime soon.  

This is of significant concern because the highway bill far and away provides us with the greatest chance for increased investment in the highway and bridge construction and maintenance. It’s the most viable way to get initiatives like “Jason’s Law” passed and written into law, and it’s the most likely vehicle for positive changes to be made in the rules and regulations that govern trucking.

A potential good that may come out of the budgetary situation is that federal agencies may be forced to back away from some regulatory actions that will be expensive to the trucking industry and expensive for them to enforce. It may also force Congress to be more responsible with how they make use of taxpayers’ transportation dollars and how they prioritize transportation infrastructure projects.

All in all, elected officials are facing a point in our nation’s history when every decision they make will have significant consequences for all of us. While we hope they make prudent and sensible decisions, we all must do our part to hold them accountable for their decisions and to help them make the right choices. We can do that by making regular contact with their offices and educating them on the matters that are most important to us. LL