Americans have a message for the politicians now weighing the nation’s fiscal future: Don’t take on more debt without cutting federal spending.
This desire for spending restraint is widespread, according to a new Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll released Monday.
Some 75 percent of Americans agreed with a statement offered in the poll: “Any increase in the nation's debt limit must be tied to spending cuts.” Only 21 percent disagreed.
Although one question in one poll isn’t a complete guide to public opinion, the new poll meshes with other surveys that have found rising concern about federal deficits – a concern that appears to be partly based on worries that rising federal debt will harm the economy.
The poll is being released as Congress and President Obama have been wrestling with what to do about two fiscal deadlines: First, America has reached its official debt limit, meaning Congress must raise the limit before the Treasury can borrow more to help pay the nations bills. Second, at the start of March, unless some other plan is agreed upon, a so-called “sequester” will go into effect, prompting automatic spending cuts to be imposed on a large swathe of the federal budget.
Republicans have agreed to de-link the two issues, at least for a time, by allowing the Treasury to borrow more money through May. But conservative lawmakers promise to battle for significant spending cuts in talks over the sequester issue.
In the new Monitor/TIPP poll, respondents who identify as Republicans show greater concern about the size of federal spending.
About 85 percent of Republicans strongly agreed with the statement “The government spends too much money,” compared with 44 percent of Democrats. But 77 percent of Democrats did agree with that statement to some degree (either “strongly” or “somewhat,” as measured by the poll.)
Similarly, about 63 percent of Democrats and 89 percent of Republicans agreed, either strongly or somewhat, with the idea of tying a debt-limit increase to spending cuts.
Majority support for this view is found among women as well as men, black as well as white, and old as well as young.
A challenge, of course, is how to cut spending.
The new poll didn’t test that question in detail, but both this survey and others have found Americans reluctant to see significant benefit cuts in programs such as Social Security and Medicare, which make up a large share of federal spending.
In the Monitor/TIPP poll, for example, a majority of respondents rejected the idea of raising the retirement age for Social Security benefits (although 4 in 10 supported the idea).
Some 7 in 10 would agree to see Social Security benefits trimmed for wealthier recipients.
Similarly, many Americans are reluctant to see big cuts in health-care programs including Medicare.
In 2011, according to White House statistics, about 43 percent of federal spending was on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid or other health programs.
Another 16 percent went toward “income security” programs such as food stamps and unemployment insurance, while more than 6 percent went toward interest on the national debt. About 20 percent of spending was on national defense – a number set to edge down as operations in Afghanistan wind down.
And 3.5 percent is spent on veterans benefits.
In the long run, controlling federal spending will mean grappling with some of those big-ticket items in the federal budget.