As Democrats and Republicans in Washington remain at odds over how to reshape the nation’s finances and prevent it from falling over the fiscal cliff, the public is supportive of cutting spending and at the same time more protective than ever of entitlement programs such as Medicare.
Traditional cleavages of class and race, age and income, and even region are apparent in the latest edition of the United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll, but they are far more muted than on issues such as President Obama’s reelection or the fate of his signature health care law. When it comes to the tax and spending issues that are at the heart of negotiations in Washington, primarily between the president and House Speaker John Boehner, the public is eager to defend the entitlement programs that both leaders have acknowledged need to be reined in if the nation’s $16 billion debt is to stop growing, let alone shrink.
Consider Medicare, with its swelling costs. The health care program for the elderly is at the center of discussions, and prominent panels that have studied the deficit and issued recommendations have often targeted it. But a full 79 percent of those surveyed want the fiscal-cliff negotiators not to cut the program at all. Only 17 percent would be willing to see it cut some, and a minuscule 3 percent would be OK with it being cut a lot.
At the end of an election year in which the public was riven, the unanimity with which the public rallies around this 47-year-old program is striking. As for gender, 71 percent of men want no cuts to Medicare, and 87 percent of women agree. There was a similar racial divide, with 93 percent of non-Hispanic blacks wanting the program exempt from cuts versus 78 percent of whites. Interestingly, men over age 50 were more open to cuts: Only 68 percent of them said the program shouldn’t be cut at all.
The figures were similar for Social Security, the other big, universal entitlement that enjoys widespread popular support.
As with many other surveys, the latest edition of the United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll found more support for cutting so-called means-tested programs that are available only to the poor or lower-middle class. Still, 45 percent of men and 52 percent of women said that the government shouldn’t make any cuts in “food stamps and housing vouchers” that go to poor families. Among white men without a college degree, a once Democratic-leaning group that has become elusive for the party, some 45 percent wanted the government to leave these programs alone.
However, it’s not as if public opinion has swung to a clear defense of expansionist government. Previous editions of the Congressional Connection Poll and other surveys have found stern opposition to the president’s health care law, and especially the mandate that Americans buy health insurance.
The poll found somewhat more openness to cutting defense spending, but it was marginal and hardly a full-throated endorsement to negotiators on Capitol Hill. Under sequestration, some $600 billion will be automatically cut from the defense budget and $600 billion from domestic discretionary spending unless Congress finds $1.2 trillion in cuts over the next decade. Given the growth of the defense budget since 9/11 and the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, the Pentagon is a natural place to look for savings. Yet about a third of Americans—34 percent of women and 32 percent of men—say defense spending shouldn’t be cut at all. Only 19 percent of men and 15 percent of women want defense spending cut a lot. A strong plurality—47 percent of men and women—approve of some cuts to the Pentagon. And that’s what’s likely to emerge from a final deal, since there’s a bipartisan consensus that the $600 billion in automatic cuts would be draconian but also that at least some cuts are in the offing.
One person who is not at the negotiating table is former President Clinton, yet he has a presence. Unless Congress acts, income-tax rates will return to their levels under his administration. President Obama has said that he’d like to see the highest rate rise from 35 percent, where it is now, to 39.6 percent, the rate when Clinton left office.
Those surveyed were mixed on the question of letting this top rate rise. The GOP argument seems to be making headway, as a combined 49 percent of respondents said it would hurt the economy “somewhat” or “a lot.”
Interestingly, 8 percent said it wouldn’t hurt at all and 38 percent said that it would actually help the economy by reducing the deficit.
On one of the most contentious issues in Washington, reforming the Senate’s filibuster—once a rarely used tool that is now commonplace—the public was divided. A plurality, 49 percent would like filibuster rules changed so it can’t be deployed as easily to require 60 votes for Senate passage of a bill. By contrast, 42 percent of respondents wanted to keep it as is.
The survey included 1,003 respondents who were questioned between Nov. 29 and Dec. 2. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.