The Unpopularity of Specific Spending Cuts

One of the biggest problems with cutting the federal budget is that the programs funded by the federal budget are actually really popular. And no, I’m not just living in a liberal delusion, the polling data finds that while cutting federal spending is popular, there is only one area of the federal budget that voters actually support cutting, foreign aid. And even then polling shows that voters want to cut it from 25 percent of the budget to 10 percent. Since foreign aid is actually only one percent of the budget the desire to cut it back to a 10 percent level is largely based on misinformation.

This makes the current budget debate extremely difficult. Washington Post reports a democrat official remarking on the negotiations, “To date they have been unwilling or able to identify a list of specific cuts or changes they would like or a single loophole they are willing to close.” (This view is borne out by reporting in the New York Times and Politico.)

As Jonathan Chait notes over at New York Magazine, “When the only cuts on the table would inflict real harm on people with modest incomes and save small amounts of money, that is a sign that there’s just not much money to save. It’s not just that Republicans disagree with this; they don’t seem to understand it. The absence of a Republican spending proposal is not just a negotiating tactic but a howling void where a specific grasp of the role of government ought to be. And negotiating around that void is extremely hard to do. The spending cuts aren’t there because they can’t be found.”

Republican-in-exile David Frum disagrees

Jonathan Chait posted yesterday a mocking little essay that contends Republicans cannot offer a coherent budget plan because they don’t know what the federal government spends its money on. The true problem is even more vexing. Republicans find it difficult to produce budget plans because we (or at least our leaders) do know how the federal government spends its money: on our voters. For all the angry talk-radio talk about Obama’s “gimme-dat” coalition, the awkward fact is that it’s the GOP that commands the support of America’s top “takers” : the older, the rural, the Southern. If you want to close the budget gap, you won’t get very far by squeezing young black single mothers – not compared to what you’ll find in the defense budget, or in Medicare, or in Social Security, or in the farm budget, etc. etc. etc.


Whether Chait is correct that Republicans are now so dedicated to a vision of drastically reducing government that they’ve lost sight of specific government programs or Frum is correct to think Republican leadership knows their votes come from net beneficiaries of federal spending it still means Republicans are unwilling to put forth specific cuts.

There is one area that Republicans are willing to cut, aid to the poor. Chait again, “It’s true that Paul Ryan’s budget plan had some deep cuts. But none of those cuts touched Medicare for the next decade or Social Security at all. Ryan just kicked the crap out of the poor. So, that provision aside, if you’re not willing to inflict epic levels of suffering on the very poor, there just aren’t a lot of cuts to be had out there.”

Writing about why we shouldn’t cut aid to the poor will be another blog (actually a whole series of blogs based on a paper I wrote for class about poverty and dependency), but for now those cuts are off the table as Obama will not agree to cuts that fall solely on the poor.

This leaves the budget negotiations at an impasse. Of course, in a sane world since the problem with the fiscal cliff is too much deficit reduction too fast we could just slow down the rate at which it hits. Cut the sequester in half, raise taxes, implement the 400 billion of spending reductions to Medicare that Obama has proposed (reductions aimed at providers, not beneficiaries) and wait/hope for an economic recovery. The United Kingdom should have taught us the danger of focusing on austerity during an economic crisis. But political negotiations aren’t based on sanity, so we will either go over the cliff, or make unnecessary cuts to highly popular programs like Medicare and Social Security.



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