Peter Daou alerted me (and some other bloggers) about survey results on Americans' budget priorities from a study by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland. You can read the report here and the raw results here.
Overall, the results should cause some concern among Republicans, especially the fiscal conservatives. In a nutshell, respondents to the survey would prefer to cut defense, reduce the deficit, and raise spending for domestic programs like education, renewable energy and veterans.
The portion of the study I like was one where the respondents were given a fixed budget -- $1000 in tax money -- and asked to allocate it among seventeen budget areas and an eighteenth item for deficit reduction. On the computer- assisted task, they got instant feedback for a budget allocation on a given item by showing the resulting increases or decreases in all remaining areas. This permitted them to fiddle with the allocations to arrive at their optimal hypothetical budget. They also saw how the administration's own budget compared.
This method is superior to nearly all opinion surveys on budget priorities which essentially give respondents a free lunch. Typically, a questionnaire asks only whether one wants to increase or decrease defense spending, increase or decrease education, etc. In other words, one is freely given the option of saying "increase" to everything -- and then ask for a tax cut, to boot! While that kind of budgeting might make sense to Bush's OMB, that is not how the real world works ordinarily. Inevitably, budgets force difficult tradeoffs, especially in an era of large deficits. Beware any survey results which do not ask respondents to make tradeoffs.
(For those wanting to delve deeper into public opinion on the budget, check out "Individuals, Institutions, and Public Preferences over Public Finance" by John Mark Hansen in the Sept. 1998 issue of the American Political Science Review.)
The PIPA survey does have some of the traditional free-lunch questions, but the budget task puts them into perspective. Among other things, the exercise reveals that people want to reserve a much larger proportion of the budget for deficit reduction -- that is to say, any -- and to increase substantially contributions to the UN, job training and investment in energy conservation and renewables. The biggest cuts? Defense and supplemental spending on Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Bush budget is to the right not just of Democrats but of the average Republican response on the survey as well. For sixteen of the eighteen areas, Republicans shifted their allocations in the same direction as Democrats relative to the Bush budget. Though GOP respondents in general are more to the right than Democrats in all cases -- no surprise -- they are more moderate than the White House in nearly all cases. And dare I say more sensible as well.
In this light, it is even less surprising that the GOP is having to temper its enthusiasm for further tax cuts, taking them off the table for now in order to satisfy other budget goals, as the Washington Post reported. The White House, not least due to over-reaching on Social Security, is feeling the pressure from both inside and outside. Another item on the second term agenda falls by the wayside.