Right now, Washington is roiled by two budget conflicts of vastly different scale. The first is the ongoing fallout from revelations that the General Services Administration has spent lavishly on perks for its employees, including a conference in Las Vegas that cost taxpayers $823,000. The scrutiny of travel by federal employees this episode inspired has turned a small spotlight on Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's frequent trips home to California, which have cost the Pentagon $860,000 in the last year. (The defense secretary is not allowed to fly commercial.)
The second budget conflict is the fight over President Obama's proposed surtax on rich Americans, known as the "Buffett Rule," which the Senate rejected Monday. The proposal, which would ensure that millionaires pay a marginal tax rate of at least 30 percent, is estimated to raise $46.7 billion over 10 years, according to a government agency that keeps score on these things.
Any discussion of federal budgets is doomed to the obfuscation of scale: We can vaguely imagine what we'd do on an $800,000 trip to Vegas. It's harder to fathom what we could do with $1 billion, especially on the scale of huge governmental deficits and debts. To help paint that picture, the opponents of the Buffett Rule were quick to point out how the new revenues would be less than 1 percent of the projected debt under Obama's 2013 budget proposal.
To put this all in perspective, here is a simple infographic. On top, you see the travel costs of the GSA's Vegas conference and Panetta's California trips compared to the estimated revenue from the Buffett rule for fiscal year 2012--$1.1 billion. Below, on a scale one thousand times larger, you see that same $1.1 to the total Pentagon budget--$645.7 billion--and the anticipated federal deficit for 2012 under Obama's budget--$1.25 trillion. In other words, the biggest square on the top is equal to the smallest square on the bottom.
We wanted to graph them together, but when you compare the GSA trip to the deficit, the conference ends up being smaller than one pixel.