Why Cutting Government Spending is So Hard: Perspectives on National Government Spending

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Professors Mark A. Smith and Rebecca Thorpe

The budget deficit is once again a prominent item on the political agenda. The fiscal cliff deal signed on January 2 included tax increases for the highest earners. The “sequestration” process, which began on March 1, implemented cuts in discretionary spending that Congress and the President initially agreed to in 2011.  For now, at least, the sequestration is taking effect.  What is the likelihood of a follow-up deal with significant cuts in entitlement spending?  Not very.

One of the fundamental tenets of budget politics holds that government spending is unpopular in general, and yet a majority of Americans actually want more—not less—spending on just about every government function.  Two recent polls confirm this pattern.  The Gallup organization probed public sentiment this way: “Some people think the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses.  Others think that government should do more to solve our country’s problems.  Which comes closer to your own view?”  54% of the respondents said that government was trying to do too many things, with only 39% taking the position that government must do more to solve the country’s problems.

So there is majority support for reducing the role of government and cutting government spending, right?  Not necessarily.  The Pew Research Center for People & the Press asked Americans, “Thinking about the federal budget, if you were making up the budget for the federal government, would you increase spending, decrease spending, or keep the same spending for…”  The poll then led respondents through a series of eighteen government programs such as education, veterans’ benefits, social security, health care, environmental protection, energy, and military defense.  Remarkably, a plurality of Americans wanted to increase rather than decrease spending on fifteen of the eighteen programs.  Only one program—“aid to the world’s needy”—received strongly negative evaluations.
           
In other words, the American public holds conflicted and contradictory views.  On the one hand, people think government is too big and want to reduce its size and scope.  On the other hand, people want to maintain or increase funding for almost every government function.  Political leaders fully understand this conundrum.  This conflict is the reason why members of Congress can win applause by talking about shrinking government, but they hesitate before proposing any specific changes or cuts beyond vague calls for eliminating “waste, fraud, and abuse.”

The opening weeks of 2013 played true to form.  Despite all of the talk about the nation’s long-term deficits, which are driven mainly by entitlement spending, both parties have resisted offering any cuts to entitlements.  Republicans seem more committed than Democrats to deficit reduction, but Republican leaders nevertheless want to avoid alienating their constituents by advocating specific reductions to popular (and expensive) programs like social security and Medicare.
           
Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) made a revealing comment on “Meet the Press” on January 6 that illuminates these constraints.  “As the leader of Senate Republicans,” McConnell said, “what I'm telling you is we elected the president to be president.  It's time for him to step up to the plate and lead us in the direction of reducing our excessive spending.”  In other words, Obama should take the heat by describing a detailed plan for cutting entitlement spending.  Obama, of course, has no desire to walk into such a trap.  And so it goes with potential plans for reducing spending on entitlements—always a bridesmaid, never a bride.


Mark A. Smith is Professor of Political Science.  His most recent book is The Right Talk: How Conservatives Transformed the Great Society into the Economic Society (Princeton University Press, 2007).

Rebecca Thorpe is Assistant Professor of Political Science.  Her forthcoming book is The Warfare State:  Perpetuating the U.S. Military Economy (University of Chicago Press).