Voters See the Debt Crisis. Why Doesn’t Washington?

Americans are tuning out the parties and looking for answers themselves.

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Once again, the American people are way out ahead of the political establishment. A recent poll by the Democracy Corps and Tulane University found that 93 percent of Americans surveyed called the federal deficit a "crisis" or a "major problem." Yet it's clear that few politicians agree with that assessment.

In January, the Senate voted down a deficit-reduction panel that would have required that Congress vote yes or no on its recommendation (instead President Obama used an executive order to create a commission whose recommendations will be nonbinding). In the meantime, members of Congress only exacerbated the problem. In February, Obama did sign into law new "PAYGO" rules, which require that new spending be matched with increased revenues or cuts elsewhere. But the bill exempted spending mandated in last year's $787 billion stimulus package, and it raised the debt limit to $14 trillion.

It should come as no surprise that politicians spend even as families have to cut their budgets. That's because to an elected official, the biggest "toxic asset" on the books these days is the federal budget deficit. No one wants to touch it. For years, both parties engaged in pandering, finger-pointing, and overheated rhetoric on the subject of taxes, spending, and the national debt. No wonder the number of independents is growing and that they list reducing the deficit as their top concern. They're tuning out the parties and looking for answers themselves.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project recently found that a surprisingly large number of adults—40 percent—have gone online to find data on government spending and activities, including researching how stimulus money is being spent, reading the text of proposed legislation, and investigating who is funding political campaigns. In a country of over 300 million, that's a lot of people. And one-third of adults who are online have used social tools such as blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, E-mail, and text alerts to keep abreast of government activities. Everybody's getting into it: Minorities such as African-Americans and Latinos are just as likely to do so as whites.

Those citizens are finding that government spending is out of control. But they're not finding a consensus on what to do about it. For example, that Democracy Corps/Tulane poll found that 7 in 10 respondents preferred cutting spending to raising taxes in order to reduce the deficit. But then 6 in 10 said there should not be any cuts to Social Security, Medicare, or defense spending—three of the biggest items in the federal budget. The fact that so many think there should not be cuts to these programs is understandable. But I bet that answer will change as people continue to educate themselves—and as they learn what "cuts" really mean.

Put another way, if I only asked you if you think we should cut Social Security, you'd probably say no—especially if you've worked and paid into it for 30 years. But if I asked you about gradually raising the retirement age between now and say, 2030, to keep up with the fact that life expectancy is much higher now than when Social Security began, you'd probably say that's reasonable. Or what if we let people defer their benefits so they can start collecting at a later time and increase their monthly benefit commensurately, enabling them to work longer if they choose? We all know someone who would rather keep active than retire.

Or what if I said: Maybe we should keep the Social Security tax rate at 6.2 percent and raise the cap on what level of wages would be subject to that tax, say, from about $106,000 a person to $150,000? You'd probably say, well, that doesn't seem too outrageous.

According to former Comptroller General David M. Walker, there are similar things that can be done with Medicare and defense spending—not arbitrary cuts, but reasonable measures that can be put in place over the long run.

Many entitlement programs were started under President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a way to help those down on their luck. That safety net should remain. But even the programs' staunchest defenders now understand what the rest of us saw a while ago. Many programs have become entrenched, a necessity to which everyone is entitled, no matter what income level or age. Lately those supporters are changing their minds.