The classic test of whether politicians are serious about balancing the federal budget is whether they confine their suggestions to eliminating earmarks, foreign aid, and fraud, waste, and abuse. Politicians love to rail against these things because they're unpopular and therefore make attractive targets. But doing so is a dodge. All combined, they account for only a tiny fraction of federal spending, so doing away with them does little for the bottom line. Anyone who implies otherwise isn't being forthright about the problem or the possible solutions. But politicians have always gotten away with this because most voters don't know enough about the budget to realize they're being snowed.
How to cut the deficit is a subject that's about to get a lot more attention. On Monday, President Obama will roll out his new budget, and it is expected to include significant cuts. Despite the president's call for "investments'' in his State of the Union address -- which Republicans pointed out was a mere euphemism for spending -- both parties will soon put forward budget plans that will reduce the deficit.
Unlike the last two years, when Washington was arguing about what to spend, the focus going forward will be on cutting. And not just the small stuff -- Obama has already pledged to end earmarks -- but also major entitlement programs, such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, along with military spending. The big debates now will be over whose ox gets gored, and how deeply.
In the abstract, voters always prefer cutting government to paying higher taxes -- 71 percent did in a recent CNN survey. This is one reason why Republicans have been so successful at the polls lately. They care less for federal programs like Medicare and more about keeping tax rates low than Democrats do. Many were elected last November by vowing to lower the deficit and impose fiscal responsibility through major (though rarely specified) cuts in spending. Often they implied that the budget could be brought into balance without raising taxes or touching Republican priorities like the military.
But the budget battle won't favor Republicans nearly as much as it might at first appear to. That's because, as voters learn more about what's on the line, their preferences tend to shift: They become less insistent on keeping taxes down, as Republicans would prefer, and more invested in protecting the kind of entitlements that Democrats cherish.
A New York Times/CBS poll last month showed that 7 in 10 Americans considered the deficit a "very serious'' problem, but also that they didn't think they should have to pay higher taxes to solve it -- a mindset that lends itself to the Republican claim that the problem stems mainly from spending, rather than revenue.
But when presented with the type of reductions that would be necessary to bring about this scenario -- including deep cuts in programs like Medicare and Social Security that generate most of the long-term debt -- the respondents changed their minds. Nearly two-thirds indicated that they would prefer solutions that are anathema to Republicans, such as higher payroll and gasoline taxes, a new levy on employer-provided health benefits, and limits on popular measures like a tax deduction for mortgage interest. They were suddenly open to cutting military spending, too.
Under no circumstances will reducing the deficit be painless or easy. One attempt to minimize tough political choices by outsourcing the problem has already come up short. Last fall, the White House's bipartisan deficit commission recommended a package of cuts and tax increases. But Obama flinched from endorsing it, and Congress never considered it. Instead, Republicans and Democrats will tackle the job on their own.
Which party ultimately comes out ahead will depend to a large extent on how much the public comes to terms with the real causes of the long-term budget deficit and what really has to be done to fix them. Right now, budget ignorance remains widespread, and Republicans appear to have the upper hand. But that could soon change. America will never be a nation of budget wonks. But if the budget battle finally forces voters to understand what eliminating the deficit will entail, the debate may soon look a lot different.
Joshua Green writes a weekly column for the Boston Globe.
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