Talk of austerity is sweeping Washington these days. In his State of the Union address last week, President Obama told Americans that the country’s current fiscal situation is “not sustainable,” and called for a series of “painful cuts” in government programs, including a five-year freeze in domestic spending, reductions in health care costs, and “tens of billions of dollars” of cuts in defense spending.
The Republican response to the president’s speech, by House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, was even more dire. Ryan warned of “a crushing burden of debt” that “will soon eclipse our entire economy and grow to catastrophic levels in the years ahead.” “A few years ago," he argued, “reducing spending was important. Today, it's imperative.”
The political problem, of course, is that Americans like the idea of reducing spending much more than they like actual cuts in specific government programs. In survey after survey they support spending more, not less, on most of the major programs that make up most of the federal budget. Will political leaders’ warnings of unsustainable, economically debilitating government debt be enough to convince the public to embrace austerity? A YouGov survey conducted just before the president’s State of the Union speech sheds some light on that question by gauging the impact of anti-deficit rhetoric on the public’s taste for spending on a variety of government programs.
One version of the survey simply asked respondents “whether you would like to see more or less government spending” in a variety of areas. (To instill a modicum of constraint, they were reminded that “if you say ‘much more,’ it might require a tax increase to pay for it.”) As in many other surveys of this sort, respondents displayed considerable appetite for government spending. For education, law enforcement, health, and pensions, proponents of spending increases outnumbered proponents of spending cuts by margins of 2-to-1 or more. The only area in which a majority of Americans supported spending cuts was culture and the arts. Unfortunately, that is such a small sliver of federal spending that eliminating it entirely would have only a barely perceptible effect on future budget deficits.
A common criticism of findings like these is that the survey questions do not force citizens to consider the costs of increased government spending. Given a simple-seeming choice between more spending and less, why not choose more? The failure of survey respondents to spontaneously consider trade-offs is underlined by the fact that the same people who support increased spending on most major government programs also routinely say they favor lower taxes and a balanced budget. Well, sure; who wouldn’t?
Is it possible, though, that growing public attention to the escalating budget deficit will spark greater popular support for meaningful spending cuts? Despite the salience of the deficit issue in Washington, it is only beginning to penetrate the political consciousness of many Americans. As recently as mid-January, for example, a New York Times/CBS News poll found that only one-third of the public had heard or read “a lot” about the budget deficit; nearly as many said they had heard “not much” or “nothing at all.” Thus, it should hardly be surprising if the deficit is not—yet—at the top of most people’s minds when they answer questions about spending on government programs.
In order to gauge the potential responsiveness of public opinion to elite discourse about budget politics in the weeks and months to come, YouGov asked another random sample of citizens a similar battery of spending questions, but with a prologue designed to mimic the cautionary rhetoric of deficit hawks:
“As you probably know, the government in Washington is currently spending much more money than it collects in taxes. Many economists and elected officials argue that the resulting budget deficit is harmful to the economy, since increasing government debt raises the cost of borrowing, crowds out private investment, and leads to slower economic growth. Reducing the budget deficit would require raising taxes, cutting spending, or both. Listed below are various areas of government spending. Please show whether you would like to see cuts or increases in government spending in each area.”
Did forcing respondents to consider the negative impact of budget deficits make them more supportive of cuts in specific government programs? Yes, but not by much. The deficit frame significantly increased public support for budget cuts in just three of eight areas: the environment (by 9 points), defense (by 7 points), and culture and the arts (by 5 points). For the popular big-ticket social welfare programs on the list—health, education, and pensions—the numbers didn’t budge. Even with heavy-handed prompting to focus on the budget deficit (and no mention of specific popular programs like Social Security or Medicare, and with cutting spending rather than increasing spending as the first response option), support for budget-cutting in these areas ranged from just 15% to 21%.
The tenacity of public resistance to spending cuts should give pause to political leaders and analysts who have interpreted the results of last November’s elections as a mandate for fiscal responsibility. While midterm voters may have been “fed up with red ink,” as former White House economist Christina Romer wrote in the New York Times recently, it hardly follows that “President Obama should embrace the reality that his re-election may depend on facing up to the budget problem.” Indeed, a more prudent course, from the standpoint of re-election politics, would be for the president to stick to budget platitudes while postponing the painful cuts that would constitute “facing up to the budget problem.”
Public antipathy to cuts in major government programs poses even trickier political problems for Republicans, given their heavy reliance on anti-deficit rhetoric and the demands for dramatic, concrete action coming from Tea Party activists. According to Lisa Mascaro of the Los Angeles Times, Republican congressional leaders “want to give a voice to conservatives but also advance a united GOP agenda that does not appear unreasonable to independent voters and middle-of-the-road Americans. … Prospects for reductions in cancer research or the FBI, for example, are causing consternation within the party and controversy in Washington.” That consternation seems amply justified, since political Independents split more than 4-to-1 in opposition to cuts in health spending and 8–to-1 in opposition to cuts in spending on police and law enforcement. Aside from culture and the arts, the only area in which as many as 40% of Independents supported spending cuts was defense—and that support runs against the grain of strong opposition to Pentagon budget cuts among Republican legislators’ own partisan supporters.
Moreover, it is not just defense that rank-and-file Republicans want to spare from the budget ax. Most of them opposed cutting spending on most of the programs in the survey, even in the deficit frame. Fewer than one in three favored cuts in law enforcement, pensions, and education. (41% favored cuts in spending on health, presumably a tribute to Republican leaders’ energetic campaign to vilify “Obamacare.”) While honest-to-goodness fiscal austerity may appeal to a vocal minority of Republican activists, it looks distinctly unpromising as the centerpiece of “a united GOP agenda” with broad electoral appeal.
The federal government spends trillions of dollars on a vast array of programs. Enterprising elected officials will, no doubt, find a few for which there is scant public enthusiasm. Indeed, House majority leader Eric Cantor has launched a clever new effort to find them—an online budget-cutting referendum called YouCut (no relation to YouGov). Cantor says that YouCut is “designed to defeat the permissive culture of spending in Congress,” and promises that each week’s “winning item” will be presented to the House for an up-or-down vote. A typical offering: “end Exchanges with Historic Whaling and Trading Partners Program; savings of $87.5 million over ten years.”
If those Historic Whaling and Trading Partners get zeroed out, budget hawks will be one five-hundredth of 1% of the way to accomplishing the $4 trillion in deficit reduction called for by President Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. When your aim is “to defeat the permissive culture of spending in Congress,” every little bit helps. But public support for serious fiscal austerity is nowhere in sight—and simply talking up the economic peril posed by budget deficits does not seem likely to produce it.
|Spend "more" or "much more"||Spend "the same as now"||Spend "less" or "much less"|
|The police and law enforcement||37%||42%||14%|
|The military and defense||29%||27%||37%|
|Old age pensions||34%||41%||17%|
|Culture and the arts||12%||24%||56%|
|Spend "less" or "much less"||Spend "the same as now"||Spend "more" or "much more"|
|The police and law enforcement||14%||49%||29%|
|The military and defense||43%||29%||20%|
|Old age pensions||17%||47%||27%|
|Culture and the arts||61%||22%||11%|
|The police and law enforcement||17%||12%||14%|
|The military and defense||26%||42%||56%|
|Old age pensions||25%||16%||14%|
|Culture and the arts||83%||60%||48%|