Public Very Cool to Deficit Commission Plan

Public Very Cool to Deficit Commission Plan

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Less than a week after the president’s fiscal commission demonstrated remarkable bipartisan support for tough, long-term measures for reducing the debt, a new survey released Thursday underscores why the plan will be a tough sell to Congress and the public. According to the survey, seven-in-ten respondents say the deficit is a major problem that must be addressed immediately. The consensus quickly evaporates when respondents are asked whether they would support specific spending cut and tax measures.

According to the survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, seven-in-ten say it is a major problem that must be addressed right away, and roughly two-thirds say that the best way to reduce the deficit is through a combination of cutting major government programs and increasing taxes.

 Yet – not exactly a surprise -- this general consensus evaporates again when Americans are asked to choose among specific proposals for cutting government programs and entitlements, or raising taxes. Among those who have heard of the work of the deficit commission, 48 percent disapprove and only 30 percent approve.

The plan crafted by co-chairmen Erskine Bowles, a Democrat, and Alan Simpson, a Republican, includes about $200 billion a year in spending cuts coupled with a revamped tax code that would raise taxes by nearly $1 trillion by 2020 through the elimination of most so-called tax expenditures, ranging from special tax breaks for business to the home mortgage, health insurance, and retirement savings deductions that affect middle class households. 

The far ranging proposal for revamping the federal tax code would lower tax rates while eliminating most tax breaks for individuals and corporations. But taken together with a 15-cents-a-gallon increase in the federal gasoline tax and other changes, the new approach would lead to an across-the-board tax increase.

But most of these major deficit reduction proposals met with public disapproval, according to the Pew survey. Particularly unpopular are provisions that would tax the health insurance people receive from their employers (72 percent disapprove), raise the national gasoline tax (74 percent disapprove), and reduce federal funding to states for things like education and roads (71 percent disapprove). Of 12 ideas tested, just two met with majority approval: increasing the amount of earned income that is subject to Social Security withholding (64 percent approve) and freezing the salaries of government workers (59 percent approve); the latter proposal is supported by President Obama and many Republicans.

The Pew survey, conducted Dec. 1-5 among 1,500 adults, found that the deficit commission is not the only group that faces public skepticism when it comes to deficit reduction proposals. Neither Republican nor Democratic congressional leaders have much credibility on this issue, with majorities saying they have little or no confidence in each when it comes to dealing with the deficit. Obama is viewed more positively, by comparison, with his handling of the deficit.

Of 12 individual proposals for reducing the federal budget deficit, only two – raising the current cap on payroll tax contributions to Social Security and freezing the salaries of government workers – receive majority support. Fully 77 percent of Democrats support making Social Security payroll taxes apply to more of high-earners’ incomes, as do 65 percent of independents. Republicans are less unified, but still about half (53 percent) back this idea. Freezing the salaries of federal government workers receives roughly the same level of support from Republicans (64 percent), Democrats (57 percent) and independents (62 percent) alike.

Another proposal – reducing Social Security benefits for seniors with higher incomes – divides the American public; 48 percent approve and 47 percent disapprove with no difference of opinion across party lines.

Two of the largest partisan gaps are on issues related to reducing military spending. Roughly half of Democrats (53 percent) approve of cutting back on military weapons programs as a way of reducing the deficit; 71 percent of Republicans disapprove of this idea. Republicans are equally opposed (70 percent) to reducing the number of people serving in the military. In this case, most Democrats (55 percent) share this opposition, though by a slimmer margin.

By a vote of 11 to 7, President Obama's fiscal commission approved a plan last Friday to cut federal deficits by $3.9 trillion over the next decade, providing momentum for future spending cuts and tax increases but falling short of the super-majority needed to prompt immediate congressional action. After months of speculation that Democrats and Republicans couldn’t find common ground on deficit reduction, commission members as ideologically diverse as conservative Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and liberal Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill and moderate Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., endorsed the plan.

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Washington Editor and D.C. Bureau Chief Eric Pianin is a veteran journalist who has covered the federal government, congressional budget and tax issues, and national politics. He spent over 25 years at The Washington Post.