The public gets serious about the deficit

Our view: An innovative exercise shows that on the federal budget, neither the president nor Congress is doing what Americans want

March 20, 2011

Last week, Congress approved another stopgap measure to keep the government running while Republicans and Democrats fight about how much should be cut during the current fiscal year, presaging an even tougher fight about the budget for fiscal 2012. The divided votes in the House and the Senate show that not only can't the two parties agree on a spending plan but that there's significant division within the Republican and Democratic ranks about what to do. Some Republicans aligned with the tea party voted against the budget continuation because it cuts too little, and some Democrats voted no because it cuts too much.

What makes matters worse is that the cuts the two parties are fighting over wouldn't even make a meaningful difference in the nation's budget deficit. Even if the Tea Party Caucus succeeds in cutting $100 billion from domestic, nondefense discretionary spending in the current budget year, the projected deficit will still be $1.4 trillion. What they would accomplish would be to kill somewhere between 200,000 and 700,000 jobs, depending on which economists you believe, while failing to address the real culprits in our budget crisis: defense spending and entitlements.

This is a case where the public is ready to have a much more serious conversation than our leaders are about reevaluating our priorities and setting ourselves on a sustainable path. The Program for Public Consultation, a joint program of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy and the Center on Policy Attitudes, created an online tool for people to try their hand at balancing the budget. It provides information on how much the nation spends on major line items like defense, agriculture subsidies, education and environmental programs and invites users to increase or decrease them, all while providing constant feedback on how users' choices affect the size of the deficit. The program also lets users tackle the tax code and Social Security.

Two weeks ago, the center provided a copy of the application to The Sun, and we invited readers to try it and send their feedback, excerpts of which are printed below. (If you haven't tried it yet, the application is still available at baltimoresun.com/budgetexercise.)

The Program for Public Consultation also used the tool last fall to do a statistically valid survey of how average Americans would tackle the budget. This month, as the budget debate heated up in Washington, it released a new report comparing the actions taken by the public with those being advocated by the president and Republicans in Congress. Their finding? Neither the White House nor the GOP is remotely close to what the public wants.

Defense spending, for example, has largely been held harmless by budget cutters in Washington, but that's not what the public would do. People who completed the center's exercise cut defense spending by 18 percent, on average; President Barack Obama is proposing to increase it by 4 percent and Republicans by 2 percent. Meanwhile, the public would spend vastly more on renewable energy, energy conservation, environmental monitoring, job training and higher education than either the president or the Republican congressional leadership.

Despite increasing spending in some areas and leaving it relatively flat in others (such as transportation), the public took a significant bite out of the projected budget deficit. How? The public showed itself more than willing to raise taxes. On average, respondents said they would support changes that added $292 billion in federal revenue, about half of it from income tax increases on those who make more than $100,000 a year. Majorities of those who completed the exercise supported increases in corporate and alcohol taxes and new levies, including a tax on sugary drinks.

These findings should give hope to a group of a half-dozen senators — Republicans Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Mike Crapo of Idaho and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, plus Democrats Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Mark Warner of Virginia and Dick Durbin of Illinois — who have been meeting behind the scenes to craft a serious, long-term deficit reduction program based both on spending cuts and an overhaul of the tax code. The rest of Congress may not be ready for that yet, but the public is.

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