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Now that Congress and the president have released their budgets, the question in Washington becomes: “Now what?” It seems we have reached another impasse on how to move forward and actually pass one.
President Barack Obama’s hand-picked Treasury secretary, Jacob J. Lew, once described budgets a “tapestry” that reflects the “hopes and dreams of a nation.” With that in mind, it’s important that Congress and the president look at reconciling any framework going forward through the lens of what Americans want to see.
It’s no secret that jobs and the economy remain the top priority of the overwhelming majority of Americans. But the best way to get there is by cutting spending and ringing in a new era of fiscal responsibility in Washington.
On April 15, 2009, Obama offered a short Tax Day speech in which he sought to reassure taxpayers about how Washington was spending their money. He promised that tax relief and fiscal discipline would help get the ailing economy moving.
“Americans are making hard choices in their budgets, and we’ve got to tighten our belts in Washington as well,” the president said. He promised to reduce the deficit, eliminate government programs “that don’t work” and cut unnecessary spending.
Looking back, that promise looks like an exercise in wishful thinking. Four years later, the economy is still struggling with high unemployment and sluggish growth most Americans are paying higher taxes, and the government continues its trend of unchecked growth. Fiscal discipline in Washington remains a distant goal as the national debt tops $16.7 trillion.
The focus in Congress should be bridging the gaps in their respective budgets, keeping in mind that a budget that reduces spending and restores fiscal responsibility to Washington will instill confidence in the very entrepreneurs and business owners we need to get the economy going.
The president’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2014 includes $3.77 trillion in total spending, which is more than both congressional Republicans and Democrats have proposed. The president calls for “a balanced approach to deficit reduction,” but that’s mostly a smokescreen for higher taxes and more spending.
His budget raises taxes by $580 billion by eliminating deductions and proposes $230 billion in cuts to entitlement spending. Importantly, the spending “cuts” in the president’s budget would mostly amount to slower growth in overall spending, rather than actual reductions. Yet Obama’s budget would still leave us with a $744 billion budget deficit this year, with ever-mounting debt. In five years’ time, the national debt would reach $21.7 trillion under the president’s plan.
Meanwhile, the first budget released by Senate Democrats in four years was not balanced, included no real cuts to spending and nearly $1 trillion in additional taxes. Why give Washington another dollar until they prove they can spend the first one wisely?
How does that compare to the policy preferences of U.S. taxpayers? In mid-April, Public Notice polled Americans to learn more about their views on taxes, spending and the economy. Contrary to the president’s repeated claims that higher taxes and more “investment” are the keys to growth, we found that Americans want just the opposite: lower taxes and less government spending.
An overwhelming two-thirds — 66 percent — of Americans agreed that the federal government should reduce spending. On taxes, 62 percent believe taxes should be lowered to create jobs and grow the economy.
Respondents cited strong concern about the national debt, with 62 percent opposing the president’s plan to increase the debt over the next five years. They also were rightfully skeptical of the claim that higher taxes are needed to pay down the debt; 54 percent said they believed the government would simply use the new revenues for more spending, rather than reducing debt.
Over the past six months, Americans have witnessed a bruising series of debates over taxes and spending in Washington. In December, they watched the fiscal cliff debacle, which ended in higher taxes for the majority of Americans but did not include spending cuts. This was followed by the bitter dispute over the sequester, $500 billion in reductions to government spending slated for the next decade that began to take effect in March.
By the time our poll was taken, Americans had had time to assess the effects of these policies. Their preference is clear: They’d rather see fewer tax hikes and more spending restraint.
In our poll, we asked respondents to assess the president’s assertion that his budget isn’t “a lot of smoke and mirrors.” A majority, 54 percent, disagreed; they recognize “smoke and mirrors” as the Obama administration’s go-to tactic when it comes to talking about taxes and spending.
The president is fond of invoking poll results when they happen to coincide with what he was already planning to do. Here’s hoping he’ll take these latest poll numbers to heart and change course on government spending.
Congress too loves to tout its initiative to do the work constituents sent them to Washington to do. They must follow through on that commitment, which means their job is not done until they hold a joint conference committee and produce a budget that can pass both chambers.
Washington lawmakers like to talk a lot about putting aside politics and making tough choices. Here is one of those moments.
Gretchen Hamel is executive director of Public Notice. Hamel served as deputy assistant U.S. trade representative for public and media affairs in President George W. Bush’s administration.