Having contradictory thoughts about the debt ceiling? You're not alone.

People think the government spends too much, but they like their federal programs just as they are. Congress's budget-master Doug Elmendorf is here to help.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf speaks at a Monitor-hosted breakfast for reporters in Washington, D.C., Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013.

Doug Elmendorf sounds frustrated, in a good-natured way. The head of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office sees big fiscal problems looming for America, and the public just doesn’t get it.

The CBO chief says most members of Congress understand the problem: Federal health and retirement programs threaten to overwhelm the budget and damage the economy, unless Washington does something. But the public complicates things.  

“One obstacle to progress is that I’m not sure that members of the public understand the nature of the challenge,” Mr. Elmendorf told reporters at a Monitor breakfast this week.

“I think there are many people in the country who don’t like federal spending in the abstract and don’t want to pay more in taxes to support more federal spending in the abstract, but who actually put great value on the benefits they receive from Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid,” says the Princeton- and Harvard-trained economist.

Elmendorf doesn’t blame the Average Joe for not spending hours poring over the CBO’s website, reading his blog, and checking out the reports. (Oh, and CBO also now has two Twitter accounts: @USCBO and @USCBOcostest.) But having a well-informed public might make his – and Congress’s and the president’s – job easier.

The public’s seemingly contradictory views play out repeatedly in opinion polls on the fast-approaching limit on Washington’s borrowing authority, known as the debt ceiling.

The Washington Post’s "Fix" blog points to two numbers in the latest Post-ABC News poll: First is the 43 percent of Americans who don’t want Congress to raise the debt limit and thus are willing to allow the nation to go into default. Second is the 73 percent who say going into default would do “serious harm” to the economy.

The Fix folks crunched the numbers and found that those who hold both views simultaneously – don’t want to raise the debt limit and yet also believe it will harm the economy – amount to 26 percent of the American public.

Either these people aren’t thinking straight, or, the Fix suggests, they are willing to put up with “short-term pain for long-term gain” – a crisis that forces politicians to solve the problem, despite the huge risks.

The Post poll also found that while big majorities of both Republicans and Democrats agree that defaulting on the debt would be really bad for the economy, opinion breaks down along party lines over whether Congress should raise the debt ceiling. Democrats are for it, Republicans are against it.

So, it seems, politics plays a big part in how people feel about what to do when the government reaches the end of its borrowing authority in mid-October.

Maybe we shouldn’t even be paying attention to polls on the debt ceiling, some commentators suggest.

“There’s nothing quite as useless as a debt-ceiling poll,” writes Steve Benen on the liberal "Maddow Blog." “Folks have no idea what the debt ceiling is, what default is, what bond markets are, or what the full faith and credit of the United States means, so polling on the subject tells us nothing.”

Lots of people think agreeing to raise the debt ceiling means signing up for more debt, when in fact, it’s about paying debts already incurred, Mr. Benen says.  

Congress routinely raised the debt ceiling more than 100 times over the years, until 2011. Then, raising the debt ceiling got embroiled in budget negotiations, and the nation went to the edge of its borrowing authority, straining the economy and hurting the political standing of the president and Republicans. Standard & Poor’s lowered America’s credit rating.  

Such ugly policymaking is unnecessary in a representative democracy, Benen suggests.

“Indeed, at a certain level, the American public is counting on elected officials to do right by the country, even if the public doesn't know it,” he writes.

But now that the debt ceiling has been politicized, it may be hard to go back to the way things used to be. The CBO's Elmendorf, whose job is to serve members of Congress, says there’s little he can actively do to promote public understanding of the nation’s fiscal imbalance – and the choices Americans face.

At least, he says, there’s the CBO website.

“I think that by making our work for the Congress available more broadly, we are helping to educate people,” Elmendorf says. “But of course, the people who find their way to our website are going to be those who are disproportionately, one might say rather peculiarly, interested in the federal budget.”

Elmendorf says the same holds true of the Fiscal Wake-up Tour that he and other budget experts did a few years back, before his CBO days. They held talks around the country to chambers of commerce and student groups, as well as on local TV.

“I felt like the audience was disproportionately people who were already going to the CBO website,” he says. “So there’s a little problem of preaching to the choir.”

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