‘Sequester’ may be 'dumb,' but most Americans like idea of spending cuts

About 62 percent of Americans see government spending as inefficient and bloated, a new Monitor/TIPP poll shows. They also much prefer general spending cuts to tax hikes or cuts in entitlement programs.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
People walk toward the US Capitol in Washington, March 4. The failure by US President Obama and Republicans to agree to halt the $85 billion 'sequester' cuts virtually guaranteed that fiscal issues would remain center stage in Washington for weeks.

Americans may not view the “sequester” as an example of brilliant budgeting, but they largely agree on one thing: They support the idea of cutting federal spending.

At least that’s what a new Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll indicates, at a time of high-stakes bargaining in Washington over the size of the federal budget.

The public's approval for spending cuts isn’t rooted in expectations that they will help the economy in the short term. But it does appear tied to concerns that high federal deficits should be controlled, and that the government could use the same kind of belt-tightening that millions of private households have gone through in recent years.

The Monitor/TIPP poll asked Americans to say which of two views they agreed more with. One was that federal programs are “riddled with waste and inefficiency,” and sizable cuts “would help the economy over time.” The other was that the programs “meet real needs for the nation, for individuals, and for businesses,” and that cuts would harm the economy.

Some 62 percent of respondents opted for the “are riddled with waste” view, while 33 percent were on the “meet real needs” side.

The result should be taken with grains of salt, of course. Just as people give Congress an abysmal approval rating while supporting their own congressional representative, they are prone to see government as inefficient in general, while being reluctant to cut cherished programs.

At the same time though, this poll suggests that many Americans don't necessarily see budget cuts as a terrible thing.

That’s an interesting finding, given that some other polls taken prior to the March 1 sequester found that Americans were hoping the cuts could be postponed or avoided. The distinction may be that Americans don't like the arbitrary nature of the sequester cuts (which hit most federal programs equally), but believe federal spending in general is bloated.

The poll, conducted by TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence for the Monitor and Investor’s Business Daily, also asked whether a 3 percent cut in federal spending (the rough size of the sequester, by one measure) is “about right” or not. While 42 percent said it’s about right, an equal number said the cuts should be deeper.

Such poll results may also help explain why President Obama has softened his tone in recent days on fiscal matters, shifting from dire warnings about the effects of automatic spending cuts to more nuanced rhetoric.

“We will get through this,” Mr. Obama said Friday. “This is not going to be an apocalypse, I think, as some people have said. It's just dumb, and it's going to hurt. It's going to hurt individual people and it's going to hurt the economy overall.”

The sequester, which arrived on March 1 as the two political parties declined to hash out an alternative spending plan, seeks to lop about $85 billion from fiscal year 2013 spending. The biggest federal programs are mostly exempt, but the cuts generally go across the board.

Another question in the Monitor/TIPP poll (conducted Feb. 25 to March 5, with a 3.4 percentage point margin of error) asked Americans to choose a preferred approach for reducing the nation’s debt. Some 62 percent preferred “cutting general government spending,” while 17 percent chose “increasing taxes” and 14 percent said “reforming entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security.”

Budget experts generally say one or both of the least-popular choices – tax hikes or less-generous entitlements – will ultimately be needed to prevent a debt from growing into a millstone-size economic problem.

Given that reality, the poll also asked people what they’d opt for if they had to choose between tax hikes or entitlement cuts, such as a one-year boost in the eligibility age for Social Security. On this question, 49 percent opted for entitlement reform, and 39 percent said they’d rather get tax hikes.

Although opinion surveys don’t reveal any abiding love for the sequester approach, one recently found Americans taking a lesser-of-evils view toward it.

A Fox News poll found that 57 percent of Americans agree with the view that "the only way to get the deficit under control is through actions like the automatic spending cuts,” whereas only 29 percent said Congress could get the job done without such a self-imposed threat.

Many budget forecasters say federal deficits are likely to decline over the next couple of years, even if the sequester cuts were canceled, due to rising tax revenue and an improving economy.

But proponents of addressing the nation’s high public debt say such spending cuts and other deficit-reduction measures are still needed.

On that front, even if entitlements are the central challenge, that doesn’t mean that it’s pointless to look for greater efficiency across the discretionary side of the budget. Several studies in recent years have concluded that federal agencies have lagged behind the private sector in productivity.

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