07/31/2014 12:24 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2014

America's Real Deficits: Jobs and Infrastructure

Hisham Ibrahim via Getty Images

Congress is fixated on the federal budget deficit.

This year, the House of Representatives passed a budget to slash funding for infrastructure, Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program, nutrition programs, K-12 education, and science research in the name of deficit reduction. Harsh across-the-board "sequester" cuts remain the law of the land. Just last week, Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on a constitutional amendment to stop the federal government from undertaking deficit spending even during emergency periods of extreme unemployment.

Something is wrong with this picture. America's federal budget deficits have actually shrunk by nearly $5 trillion since 2010. The Congressional Budget Office's projection for the budget deficit this year is considerably smaller than it's been on average over the past 40 years. In short, the economic evidence is clear: This deficit is no longer an urgent issue.

But there are, in fact, deficits that demand America's immediate attention: Consider our infrastructure deficit and our jobs deficit.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, our nation needs to invest approximately $2.7 trillion in roads, bridges, water and sewage systems, electrical grids, and ports by 2020. But there's only an estimated $1.6 trillion in public and private financing projected to be available over that period. This $1.1 trillion infrastructure deficit is more than just an outstanding liability on America's balance sheet. If unaddressed, it will mean more frequent power outages, traffic jams, higher prices at supermarkets, and even dangerous accidents like the bridge collapses of recent years.

America's most serious deficit -- our jobs deficit -- stands at more than 6.8 million. This summer, the nonpartisan Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution calculated that it would take 6.8 million jobs just to bring us back to pre-recession employment levels accounting for the new adult entrants to the labor market. Even according to optimistic projections, it would take us until 2018 to close this gap. This deficit is more than just an economic challenge: It translates into lost homes and health care as well as crushing anxiety and dimmer lifelong career prospects. Our jobs deficit hurts not only the unemployed but also low-wage and middle-wage workers who, in times of high unemployment, lack the bargaining power needed to secure a good income.

Congress can act right now to close both the infrastructure deficit and the jobs deficit. There's no shortage of options:

• I have introduced H.R. 1000, the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment and Training Act, to create public trusts -- financed by a minuscule tax on Wall Street speculation -- to enable small businesses and municipalities to hire people to upgrade our infrastructure, strengthen our education and health care systems, address environmental challenges and other key public needs.

• President Obama's American Job Act -- which has recently been reintroduced by Congresswoman Frederica Wilson of Florida -- would create smart incentives for hiring the long-term unemployed, establish a national infrastructure bank, and enable states and localities to re-hire educators, first responders, and researchers whose positions were eliminated due to recent budget cuts.

• This week, I introduced the Bringing Urgent Investment to Local Development (BUILD) Act to re-launch the Build America Bonds program, a proven, cost-effective tool to empower cities and states to undertake infrastructure repairs and other capital projects at lower cost. This market-oriented approach has been endorsed by elected officials and organizations across the political spectrum.

All of these policies would reduce America's infrastructure deficit and jobs deficit. They would also, over the long-run, reduce the federal budget deficits that are still Republicans' main concern. It's most cost-effective to get to work on needed public projects now when interest rates remain low and unemployment remains high. When Americans are trained, working and contributing to the nation's coffers, businesses enjoy more consumer demand and the government is less laden with debt.

It's time for Congress to get serious about infrastructure and jobs--the deficits that really matter to the American people.