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Inaction on the Budget: The American People Are Partly to Blame

A cashier holds copies of the 2013 Federal Budget at the Government Printing Office in Washington (REUTERS/Joshua Roberts).

At a time when beating up on “Washington politicians” is so much in vogue, it may be time for the American people to look in the mirror. Two recent surveys from the respected, non-partisan Pew Research Center shine a spotlight on the public attitudes that contribute to political gridlock.

On February 21st, a Pew survey documented widespread public demand for major legislation to address the budget deficit. Fully 70 percent said it was “essential,” compared to 51 percent for immigration legislation, 46 percent for gun violence, and only 34 percent for climate change. Probing deeper, the survey found that 76 percent—which included majorities of Republicans as well as Democrats and Independents – favored a combination of spending cuts and tax increases, versus only 19 percent for spending cuts only and a miniscule 3 percent who wanted only tax increases.

Although the people broadly favor what President Obama calls a “balanced approach,” they don’t treat taxes and spending symmetrically. Of the 76 percent who favor a combination, more than two thirds (54 percent of respondents) favor a package of “mostly” spending cuts, versus only 16 percent for mostly tax increases. In sum, the survey found 73 percent of the people want to solve the deficit problem only or mostly with spending cuts, compared to 19 percent who favor only or mostly taxes.

Although would seem to be a pretty clear message to elected officials, a survey Pew released the very next day showed why politicians are tied up in knots. For 19 categories of federal programs, researchers asked whether each should be increased, decreased, or kept the same. In none of these categories—not one—was there a majority in favor of cuts. While people mostly wanted spending to stay the same, in three categories—health care, education, and veterans’ benefits—people preferred increases to stability. Even among Republicans, in whose ranks budget-cutting fervor runs high, cuts draw majority support in only two categories—foreign aid and unemployment insurance.

It now appears that rather than raising taxes, Congress will go along with major cuts to the defense budget. Considering that even conservative Republicans—long the bastion of support for the military—are willing to go along, you might imagine that there’s a huge groundswell in favor of lower defense spending. You’d be wrong: only 24 percent do, versus 41 percent who want to keep spending steady and 32 percent who want to increase it; this after 12 years of war and elevated military expenditures.

As for entitlement cuts, forget about it. Only 15 percent favored reduced spending on Medicare. For Social Security, it was 10 percent.

So there you have it: the American people want the federal government to reduce spending without touching actual programs. Is it any wonder that long-term budget cuts have stalled and that even short-term fiscal issues tie Congress up in knots?

But before we rush to say that it’s all the people’s fault, we should reflect on how they have come to harbor such internally inconsistent sentiments. A large part of it stems from what their elected officials have been telling them—and even more, not telling them--for a very long time. How many of the people’s representatives in either the legislative or executive branches have really leveled with their constituents about what it would take to wrestle the federal budget back on a sustainable trajectory for the long term?

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that most of today’s politicians regard the people with a mixture of fear and contempt: they can’t stand the truth, and they’ll punish any elected official who utters it.

When politicians come to believe this, or act as though they do, effective democratic self-government becomes impossible, and temporizing and pandering fill the vacuum the absence of serious governance creates.

  • William A. Galston holds the Ezra K. Zilkha Chair in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program, where he serves as a senior fellow. A former policy advisor to President Clinton and presidential candidates, Galston is an expert on domestic policy, political campaigns, and elections. His current research focuses on designing a new social contract and the implications of political polarization.

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