Congress needs to be honest with the American people about the tough decisions surrounding spending cuts and the deficit.
Congress avoided the “fiscal cliff” mainly by delaying the difficult work of spending reform until March. In the coming weeks, therefore, Americans increasingly will be engaged in the debate on spending cuts.
Numerous polls suggest a basic disconnect in the U.S. population that causes problems for elected officials. Americans uniformly think the federal government should spend less, but they consistently support the programs that consume most of the federal budget.
Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid are popular programs. They are expensive, but people recognize their importance.
Several recent polls concluded that not only do a majority of Americans support the programs, a majority of those who identify themselves as conservatives support them.
A majority of Americans do not just support Medicaid, but support an expansion of Medicaid. Medicare and Social Security are even more popular.
Most Americans are reluctant to cut defense spending. The three popular social programs, defense and interest payments account for two-thirds of spending.
Americans also, of course, support deficit reduction.
What is clear from the seemingly inconsistent polling data is that spending cuts should not be discussed in the abstract. Congress needs to communicate the impact of spending cuts on federal programs with specificity.
It’s not enough to simply kick the obligations for programs to the states, pretending that savings will magically materialize.
Similarly, it’s not enough for Congress to promise to cut loopholes to increase revenue, without specifying which loopholes. In the past, Congress has been unable to withstand the political heat that comes from eliminating loopholes enjoyed by major campaign contributors.
Both historically and in recent years, the effort to balance the budget has been a bipartisan failure. The Democrat-controlled Senate is not passing budgets. The Republican-controlled House is passing budgets that lack the specifics needed to justify its claims that they would reduce the deficit.
While there are strong arguments for deficit spending in the short term, until the economy recovers, it is not a long-term option. As a nation, we need to decide whether there are programs we can do without. If not, we need to raise revenue.
Congress has major decisions ahead. It needs to be honest with the American people as it confronts them.