Following a big election win, the GOP is claiming a big mandate from “the American people” to dramatically cut back government spending. The continuing resolution (which would keep the government from shutting down on March 4) that the House has been working on will cut many tens of billions of dollars from a wide range of domestic programs that are subject to the annual appropriations budget. Although most of these cuts are not expected to survive in the Senate, the House bill shows that the country is facing an inevitable showdown over spending priorities. The House will continue to do everything it can to cut back as much as possible, while Senate Democrats and President Obama are more inclined to offer a more gradual version of spending cuts that will attempt to preserve funding for their priorities. (The President’s proposed budget for the new fiscal year, which begins on October 1, would preserve funding for health reform implementation, while the House GOP’s continuing resolution would defund most of it.)
But as long as the GOP is unwilling to consider tax increases, and Democrats are unwilling to put Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security on the table, neither party is going to be able to enact a credible plan to dig the country out of its growing debt burden. The Wall Street Journal reports that a bipartisan group of Senators is working on a plan, based on President Obama’s bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which would include “a tax code overhaul; discretionary spending cuts; changes to Medicare, Medicaid and other entitlements; and changes to Social Security.”
The effort to reduce government spending may run into a big obstacle, though: the American people themselves. The GOP, naturally, believes that its huge gains in the mid-term elections and the rise of the Tea Party show that “the American people” are four-square behind the effort to slash spending. In that sense, they are very much like President Obama and the Democrats were after their huge win in the 2008 elections: they felt that the same “American people” gave them a mandate to reform health care and increase spending on a whole range of priorities. The Democrats later found that the mandate from the American people, especially on health reform, was a lot softer than they expected, with polls today showing that the public remains pretty much evenly divided between wanting to repeal the health reform law or keep or expand it.
The reality is that the American people are a confused and contradictory lot. They are all for cutting government spending - as long as it doesn’t reduce spending on the programs that they care about, which is just about everything. Just like they were all for health care reform, as long as they don’t have to pay any more for it or make major changes in how they get coverage.
Don’t take my word for it. A new public opinion survey from the well-respected Pew Research Center finds how conflicted the public is about cuts in government spending:
“Across a range of federal programs, Americans are no longer calling for increased spending, as they have for many years” the researchers report. “For the most part, however, there is not a great deal of support for cutting spending, though in a few cases support for reductions has grown noticeably. The survey also shows that the public is reluctant to cut spending -- or raise taxes -- to balance state budgets.”
Here’s more from the survey:
Only one in five Americans cited the deficit as their top economic concern. Even Republicans are split: about as many Republicans cite the job situation (39%) as the budget deficit (36%) as their chief economic concern.
And this: “the public’s taste for cuts in federal government spending on specific programs remains limited. More want to see spending increased than decreased on 15 of 18 issues tested. The only area where a plurality favors decreased spending is on economic assistance to needy people around the world; even here, just under half (45%) support spending cuts, while 21% say spending should be increased and 29% want to keep spending the same. In two other areas – military defense and assistance for the unemployed – the numbers favoring cutbacks are roughly equal to the numbers favoring increases.”
The public’s lack of appetite for cuts includes government spending on health care. 71% of Americans want the government to keep spending the same amount or more on health care, and only 24% want to decrease it. 83% want the government to increase spending on Medicare or keep it the same; only 12% want to reduce it.
The challenge, as I see it, is that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have the mandate from the American people that they think they have. The GOP’s tea-party base wants to eviscerate much of what the federal government does, but that is not where the American people are, or even most Republicans. The Democrats may think that the public is on their side, but the Pew Research also shows that the public’s appetite for more spending is waning. “For 12 of the 13 issues where 2009 trends are available, either support for increased spending has fallen or support for spending cuts has grown (or both)” according to the Pew Center.
Public opinion notwithstanding, no serious economist disagrees that the United States needs to get a handle on its deficit spending and debt. The only real debate is how quickly, and what combination and degree of spending cuts (and in what areas) and tax increases (and to whom) will get us there. But until the Democrats or Republicans—or better yet, both parties together—are able to persuade “the American people” that things have to change, meaning that some will have to pay more to government and some will have to get less from it, the American people will remain a confused and contradictory lot. And politicians from both parties who claim a mandate to grow or shrink government will do so at their own peril.
Today’s questions: What do you make of the public’s seemingly conflicting views on increasing or reducing government spending? And what does this mean for the chances of getting bipartisan agreement (the only way it can happen) on deficit reduction?