M E M O R A N D U M
To: Interested Parties
From: Gretchen Hamel, Executive Director, Public Notice
Date: September 1, 2011
Re: Congress’ Return
In November 2010, Republicans rode into Washington on a wave of discontent about the economy and Congress’ growing appetite for government spending. Since the election, federal lawmakers have passed two major pieces of legislation dealing with government spending – the fiscal year 2011 full-year continuing resolution (CR) and the Budget Control Act. Both policies claim to cut federal spending or at least slow the rate of its growth. But are voters satisfied? Hardly.
Recent polling numbers and focus groups prove voters’ discontent. According to a recent Gallup poll on the topic, only 13 percent of adults – including an astonishingly low nine percent of Independents – approve of the job Congress is doing. More than four in five Americans, 84 percent, disapprove of Congress’ job. Furthermore, according to Pew, only three percent of adults say they trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always.” Only 16 percent say they trust the government to do what is right most of the time while 72 percent of Americans say they trust the government to do what is right only sometimes. Eight percent say they never trust the government to do what is right. Finally, a pollster with Public Opinion Strategies said that in focus groups over the last two weeks he has seen a “…change in tone in the wake of the debt ceiling negotiation.” “Historically … this type of deep voter anger, unease, and economic pessimism leads to unstable and unpredictable political outcomes,” the pollster said.
Considering all of this, it is no wonder Congress is feeling nervous – nervous about the economy and nervous about their own reelections. Several news stories this August indicated that members of Congress, while out of session, chose to deal with this discontent by avoiding their constituents this summer. According to a story from National Public Radio as many as 60 percent of members chose not to hold any town halls this in August. A Los Angeles Times headline screamed, “Members of Congress Avoid Town Hall Brawls This Recess.” This phenomenon doesn’t seem as if it’s confined to one party; both Republicans and Democrats appeared to avoid town halls. Clearly this indicates that neither party feels they have the higher ground when it comes to fiscal and economic issues.
Lawmakers may have gotten away with hiding over the last few weeks, but they won’t be able to duck the issues or the voters forever. They will have to work together to solve a problem they both created.
Representatives and senators returning to Washington have a lot of prove to voters concerned about spiraling deficits and mounting debt. And even though anxiety about the economy reigns, polling shows voters increasingly want lawmakers to continue to focus on getting control of the soaring budget deficit instead of spending more money in an effort to “stimulate” the economy.
According to Pew, when given two choices, only 42 percent of adults say they would put a higher priority on spending money to help the economy recover. Interestingly, this number is down from 46 percent nearly six months ago. More than half – 52 percent – would put a higher priority on reducing the budget deficit, up from 49 percent from about six months ago.
What can members of Congress do to satisfy a public hungry for continued spending cuts and economic reform? Certainly, the agenda starts with the spending bills that must be passed this fall during fiscal year 2012 appropriations process. Up to this point, the House has passed six appropriations bills while the Senate has just passed one. Regarding the one bill both the House and the Senate have passed, the two chambers have not voted to reconcile the differences between the two versions – meaning none of their work for fiscal year 2012 appropriations has been completed even though the new fiscal year begins on October 1.
The fact that Congress is so far behind is not surprising considering recent appropriations history – the last time Congress passed all the appropriations bills individually was more than 15 years ago – but delays like this make it more likely Congress will have to make spending decisions at the last minute.
Immediately upon their return to Washington, lawmakers should buckle down get to work on passing fiscal year 2012 spending bills that cut federal spending. Included in this discussion should be a vigorous debate on how to cut defense spending, by far the largest piece of spending considered during the yearly appropriations process.
Next up for Congress this fall is the work of the 12-member Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction (the “supercommittee”). The supercommittee, established by the debt ceiling bill, is tasked with finding $1.5 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years. These cuts are in addition to the $917 billion in savings triggered by spending caps established in the debt ceiling bill. These caps, spread out over ten years, and beginning in fiscal year 2012, don’t really cut spending – they simply cut the growth rate of government spending.
Unlike those caps, which only addresses discretionary spending programs like education and defense, the supercommittee can consider modifications to entitlement spending, which lies is outside of the yearly appropriations process. Entitlement spending consumed 55 percent of all federal spending in 2010. If the supercommittee wants to get serious, it cannot ignore these, the largest federal government expenditures: Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Until Congress tackles these programs, we won’t be able to get control of our deficit problems.
Just like the Appropriations Committee should look for cuts in the fiscal year 2012 Defense Appropriations bill this fall, the supercommittee also should take a hard look at defense spending. There are certainly plenty of places to find savings in defense, starting with the defense contracting process. (As side note: Public Notice will be holding a debate on defense spending on September 13 in which we’ll ask panelists, including Larry Korb of the Center for American Progress and Christopher Preble from the CATO Institute, for their best ideas for reform.)
Finally, there is the issue of tax reform. Certainly the supercommittee will have to tackle this question. Members will be under intense pressure to either pass full-scale tax reform that cuts overall rates but eliminates major deductions (true reform is certainly worth considering), or raise income tax rates.
Polling on the tax question is mixed. According to the Economist, 39 percent of adults believe it would not be possible to “make large reductions to the budget deficit” without increasing taxes. Still, about the same number – 40 percent – said it would be possible to cut the budget deficit without raising taxes. However, according to a recent Economist article, headlined “Don’t Look Down; the Poor Like Taxing the Rich Less than you Think,” shows that soaking the rich may not be as politically popular as some lawmakers assume.
On tax reform, voters clearly prefer a fairer system with lower rates. According to Gallup, 76 percent of adults are in favor of a bill to completely overhaul the current tax system. More than half – 51 percent – of Americans would like to see what the country pays in federal income taxes reduced.
The lack of clarity on polling tax questions reveals an underlying truth: Washington cannot cover all of its $14.7 trillion debt by simply raising, or even reforming, taxes. This is why voters are suspicious of tax increases and strongly support fiscal restraint.
Some members of Congress will be tempted to dodge the question of spending cuts by focusing on tax hikes instead. While members may have ducked tough constituent questions this August recess, they can’t run from the broader fiscal questions and problems that still face the nation. They’ll have to start putting economics before politics when they return this fall.
It’s time to get to work.
Media Relations Director
Media Relations Coordinator