The Public Fails in Budget Debate

August 22, 1993|By BOB SOMERBY

President Clinton's budget deal has been passed, in amendedform, by both houses of Congress, and has been signed into law.

But as is common in our hyper-critical political culture, virtually all parties involved in the budget negotiations have lost public standing in the process.

* President Clinton was derided as an old-style "tax-and-spend" Democrat who gave away the store in back-room deals to stitch together his slender margins of congressional support.

* Well-known Democratic senators were accused of forcing the president to make small-minded concessions as a price for their votes on the issue.

* Congressional Republicans, who unanimously opposed the measure, were condemned for failing to address deficit problems which they helped to create.

As the dust cleared from the budget wrangling, we had a familiar scene in post-Perot Washington -- a scene in which a disgusted public condemned all parties involved in the resolution of a large public issue.

But whatever one may think of the budget itself, or of the role of White House or Congress in fashioning it, one segment of the body politic has indisputably embarrassed itself in the process. That segment is the public itself.

Surveys conducted before and after the final congressional votes revealed a public which, while eager to criticize president and Congress, was grossly misinformed as to the most basic provisions of the budget deal -- a public, in other words, eager to pronounce sweeping judgments on a bill with which it was completely unfamiliar.

In so doing, the public has failed again to exercise its prescribed role in our democratic system -- the role of well-informed board of directors. And in its ill-informed denunciations, it has continued the petulant self-pitying behavior that has become so familiar in our political culture.

In its Aug. 2 edition, the Monday before the final budget vote, the Wall Street Journal reported results of a survey designed to determine what the public knew about the budget bill, as opposed to what it thought about those who had crafted it.

As is almost always true in surveys of this kind, the results were striking -- and shocking.

Most remarkably, 85 percent of people surveyed in the $20,00-to- $50,000 income range believed their income taxes would go up under the Clinton plan -- a plan under which income taxes would rise for working couples only if their taxable income was $140,000 or more.

In a survey published by USA Today the next day, 68 percent believed the bulk of new taxes would fall on the middle class -- a belief impossible to reconcile with any rational understanding of a plan attacked consistently by its opponents as an example of class warfare against the rich.

In a column discussing the "breath-taking cynicism against all politicians" now found in the American public, Gerald Seib of the Wall Street Journal had this to say about the massive public misinformation about the Clinton budget plan:

"No matter what one may think of the Democrats' deficit-reduction plan, it is indisputable that the overwhelming share of its taxes fall on upper-income people. That was true in the beginning, and it became far more true once the president's energy tax was killed."

Yet people simply don't believe it, and Mr. Clinton made only a dent in their opinions by stating his case over and over again.

Please note: We are not talking here about some minor detail of an admittedly complex piece of legislation. We are talking about the most central feature of the budget deal -- the most widely debated aspect of the proposal.

That the income tax provisions of the plan would affect only couples earning well into six figures was a central feature of the budget plan right from the start. No part of the plan was maintained so consistently. No part of the plan was explained more times in the lengthy debate on the budget.

Yet in spite of this, in the words of Time magazine, "Republican law-makers and conservative talk-show hosts had succeeded in frightening many Americans . . . into the mistaken belief that the middle class will bear the brunt of Clinton's new taxes."

And so we saw again an outraged public condemning all involved in an issue while knowing virtually nothing about the bill on which it vents its extreme feelings.

Public misinformation about the budget bill is not some sort of troubling anomaly. Indeed, in attributing misinformation about the bill to "breath-taking cynicism" about the things that politicians tell us, Mr. Seib is likely being far too kind in his assessment of this troubling lack of knowledge.

The fact is, surveys routinely show that the public is poorly informed about virtually all matters of policy, including -- as in this case -- the most widely debated issues of the day. In this failure -- let's come out and say it -- the public that loves to criticize Congress and White House for dereliction of duty is almost constantly derelict in its own.

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