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Meet John Q. Public, deficit-cutter

August 1, 2011

By Steven Kull

This article originally appeared in Politico on July 27, 2011.

As Democrats and Republicans head perilously closer to federal default on the debt, like teenagers heading toward a cliff in the game of chicken, we might ask "What would the public do?"

Is the partisan impasse a mirror of a polarized public?

Polls repeatedly show that the public would be ready to make a deal. Even if a representative sample of Republicans and Democrats were to sit down, majorities on both sides could find common ground. Contrary to Republicans in Congress, the GOP public is ready to accept some increases in taxes. Contrary to Democrats in Congress, the Democratic public is ready to show flexibility on entitlements.

In a July 7-10 Gallup Poll, only 26 percent of Republicans said they insist on dealing with the deficit through spending cuts alone, while 68 percent indicated a readiness to accept at least some tax increases.

In a July 14-17 Washington Post poll, 54 percent of Republicans favored increasing taxes on those with incomes more than $250,000, 55 percent favored increases in taxes on oil and gas companies and 50 percent favored increasing Medicare premiums for wealthier retirees.

When the Program for Public Consultation presented a representative sample of Americans the projected federal budget in some detail, as well as a list of possible revenue sources, and asked them to do their own budget, Republicans did make substantial cuts in spending -- on average $101 billion per year. However, they increased revenues even more -- on average $230 billion per year.

More than six in 10 Republicans favored raising the amount of income subject to the Social Security payroll tax to at least $156,000.

Democrats showed substantially more flexibility on entitlements than their representatives in Congress. The PPC survey presented respondents a list of options for dealing with the Social Security shortfall, with Congressional Budget Office scores for how much it would take to solve the problem.

To deal with the projected Social Security shortfall, 63 percent of Democrats favored raising the retirement age to 68 by the year 2034. Majorities of Democrats (53 percent) were not enthusiastic about slowing the rate of increase in Social Security benefits but said they could tolerate the idea. They were also ready to tolerate increasing Medicare premiums.

Democrats also showed a readiness to make cuts in discretionary spending. On average, they cut spending $157 billion.

Republicans and Democrats alike agreed to significant cuts in a wide range of areas. The biggest cut -- for both Republicans and Democrats -- was defense. The Republicans cut it on average $56 billion, while Democrats cut it $131 billion.

Overall, with a combination of spending cuts and revenue increases, Republicans cut the deficit by an average of $331 billion, the Democrats by $496 billion. And this was just for one year.

This number does not include the changes they made to Social Security. Indeed, a majority of Republicans and Democrats were ready to make enough changes to solve the Social Security shortfall, according to the scoring parameters established by CBO.

With government leaders reaching an impasse that is jeopardizing the U.S. economy, it might be better if they listen to those they claim to represent.

Steven Kull is director of the Program for Public Consultation, a joint program of the Center on Policy Attitudes and the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland.


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