Two new polls may explain why Democrats and Republicans are struggling to reach a deal to avoid the painful sequester disliked by both sides. The polls, released Friday by Pew Research Center, show that the American public has little understanding of the federal budget, and unrealistic expectations about what the government can produce, given its current revenue. Americans want the Congress to balance the federal budget through spending cuts, but when Pew asked respondents which programs should be cut, a majority supported keeping current spending levels for 18 of 19 federal programs surveyed.
The sequester cuts, scheduled to take effect March 1, 2013, will have dramatic effects on the economy and the lives of everyday Americans. The sequester will cut nearly every federal program by 8.2 percent, which will lead to less Medicare access, less teachers, longer flight delays, fewer food inspects, and less border patrol security, among other things. A non-partisan study found that the cuts will also reduce GDP and may lead to up to one millions jobs lost.
The Pew poll found that a plurality of Americans, 49 percent, now believe the sequester cuts should be delayed. The leaders of both parties agree that the sequester is a bad idea, and both have blamed the other for the sequester ever becoming law.
The difficult part is not demonizing the sequester, but passing an alternative in the Democrat-controlled Senate and the Republican-controlled House. Democrats favor delaying the sequester through new revenues, such as closing corporate loopholes, and some alternative spending cuts. Republicans only favor delaying the sequester though spending cuts alone.
The Pew poll found where Republicans believe they are getting their support. Fifty-four percent of Americans favor believe that a deal to delay the sequester should be “led toward cuts” as opposed to new taxes. Just 16 percent of Americans said a deal should “rely mostly on taxes.”
However, when Pew went on to ask Americans which programs they would like to be cut, Americans said that nearly every program should be spared. The following is a breakdown of programs that have support for spending levels to be “increased or kept at their current level.”
- Veteran’s Benefits – 91 percent
- Social Security – 87 percent
- Education – 89 percent
- Natural Disaster Relief – 84 percent
- Food and Drug Inspection – 83 percent
- Combating Crime – 82 percent
- Medicare – 82 percent
- Road and Infrastructure – 81 percent
- Anti-Terrorism Efforts – 77 percent
- Agriculture – 74 percent
- Scientific Research – 77 percent
- Energy – 74 percent
- Environmental Protection – 76 percent
- Health Care – 72 percent
- Aid to Need in U.S. – 72 percent
- Military Defense – 73 percent
- Unemployment Aid – 65 percent
- State Department – 50 percent
The only program that a plurality, not even a majority, of Americans favored cutting was “Aid to the world’s needy.” Foreign aid makes up less than one percent of the federal budget. Even if all federal aid was cut, including aid to Israel that Republicans overwhelming support, it would not come close to being sufficient to delay the sequester.
In other words, the American public wants “spending cuts." But when asked what they want cut, the public essentially says nothing. In two cases, the Pew poll found that a plurality of Americans actually favored increasing federal spending. Sixty percent of Americans favored more spending for education, and 53 percent favored more spending for veterans benefits. The Education Department budget will face an 8.2 percent cut under the sequester.
So Republicans are right; the public wants spending cuts. And Democrats are right; the public does not really want spending cuts once they know what those spending cuts really mean. This is the current “paradox” of American politics, and until it is resolved, self-inflicted wounds like the sequester may continue happening.