Disgusted by the Sequester? Blame Yourself

In its dysfunctional way, Washington is doing more or less what voters say they want

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House Speaker John Boehner speaks at a news conference with Rep. Martha Roby (R-AL) and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), Feb. 13, 2013. The House Republicans said Senate Democrats must work to avert cuts that will go into effect March 1.
House Speaker John Boehner speaks at a news conference with Rep. Martha Roby (R-AL) and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), Feb. 13, 2013. The House Republicans said Senate Democrats must work to avert cuts that will go into effect March 1.

Americans are once again fuming about Washington politicians entrenched in a budget battle that could threaten the whole economy.

Yet the Democrats and Republicans allowing a punishing "sequester" to go into effect are doing largely what Americans want them to do.

There's widespread agreement that the nation's mushrooming national debt is an important problem. In a recent Pew Research poll, 70 percent of respondents said measures to correct deficit spending are the most important priority this year.

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So what's the best way to fix the problem? In the same poll, 76 percent of people said a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts would be best, with 54 percent saying they prefer "mostly spending cuts."

Funny, that's about exactly what Congress has done so far this year.

The fiscal cliff deal at the start of the year raised taxes on wealthy Americans and ended the payroll tax cut that had been in effect for three years, effectively raising taxes on most workers as well. Now, the sequester will cut spending by an amount that will eventually reach $110 billion per year, for a total of about $1 trillion in spending reductions during the next decade.

So what's the problem, people?

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Oh, I see. It turns out Americans want spending cuts in general, but not in many specific programs. In a separate Pew poll, there were only three categories in which respondents wanted less government spending overall: aid to the world's needy, State Dept. funding, and unemployment benefits. Alas, those line items are a tiny portion of government outlays.

In 16 other categories, more people favored spending increases than favored decreases. Americans want more spending on expensive things like defense, Social Security, Medicare and healthcare in general. Even Republicans favored more spending over less in 10 of 19 categories.

If voters are that conflicted, maybe that explains why the politicians they voted for are, too. "It may be time for the American people to look in the mirror," writes William Galston of the Brookings Institution. "Public attitudes contribute to political gridlock."

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A bigger problem is that nobody in Washington is showing convincing leadership on the issue, especially when it comes to laying out the real sacrifices it will take to truly get Washington's finances in order. President Barack Obama argues that more wealthy people need to do their "fair share" by paying higher taxes, yet he says practically nothing about cutbacks that will be needed in overextended entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security.

Republicans, meanwhile, live in a fantasy world in which cutting taxes will magically put more money into government coffers, even though that very experiment failed miserably under President George W. Bush.

The result is a series of standoffs that end up addressing the problem in about the clumsiest way imaginable. But then voters never said they expected elegant solutions out of Washington.

Rick Newman's latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.