A Republican proposal for another two-week extension of the federal budget, floated on Friday, at least delays the prospect of a government shutdown. But it does nothing to resolve the underlying stalemate between President Barack Obama and House Republicans over their effort to cut $61 billion from the current year's budget. What makes matters worse is that even if the Republicans succeed in enacting all those cuts, it won't come close to eliminating the budget deficit, which for fiscal 2011 is estimated at $1.5 trillion. In fact, the federal government could eliminate entirely the categories of spending the Republicans and the White House have focused their budget cutting attention on — discretionary, nondefense spending — and still not come close to balancing the books.
It's tempting to view the standoff as typical Washington power politics as the two parties jockey for advantage in the run-up to the 2012 election. But in fairness, elected officials are working from some pretty conflicting instructions from the people they're supposed to represent. A CBS/New York Times poll last month found that 56 percent of Americans favored immediate action to reduce the deficit. But when it came to the programs that are creating the nation's' fiscal problems — such as Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security — strong majorities opposed cuts. Majorities thought deficit cutting was more important than protecting federal workers' pensions and welfare programs, and the public was split about 50-50 on defense spending. An overwhelming majority did support cutting foreign aid, but that constitutes less than 1 percent of the budget.
The other option for balancing the budget — tax increases — was anathema to those polled; only 9 percent favored that idea.
Given all that, politicians could be excused for thinking the public wants them to talk a lot about cutting the deficit but not to actually do it.
But the Program for Public Consultation, a joint project of the University of Maryland's School of Social Policy and the Center on Policy Attitudes, contends that the problem isn't that Americans are selfish or confused. It's that we're not asking the questions the right way. They developed a computer application that educates voters on the size of the nation's problem and gives them the chance to adjust the level of spending on a variety of federal programs — either up or down — with constant feedback on how their actions affect the size of the projected deficit. Participants then were asked about various proposals for altering the nation's tax system and given the same information about how their choices would increase or decrease the deficit. Separate exercises asked them to consider options to strengthen Social Security and Medicare.
The researchers who designed the study presented it to a statistical sample of Americans and found that they were much more willing to enact both broad cuts and tax increases than the leaders who represent them. On average, they were able to reduce the discretionary budget deficit by 70 percent. A majority of respondents was able to come up with a plan for making Social Security solvent, too.
As part of its effort to educate the public about the choices the nation faces, the program made its budget exercise available on The Sun's website. You can find it at baltimoresun.com/budgetexercise. We ask that readers who complete the exercise send us feedback about the choices they made at email@example.com. We will follow up next month on the editorial page with a comparison of the solutions offered by President Obama, congressional Republicans, the sample of Americans surveyed by the Program for Policy Consultation and Sun readers.