WASHINGTON – In the federal budget standoff, the majority of U.S. adults are asking lawmakers to pull off the impossible: Cut the overall size of government, but also devote more money to the most popular and expensive programs.
Six in 10 U.S. adults say the government spends too much money. But majorities also favor more funding for infrastructure, health care and Social Security — the kind of commitments that would make efforts to shrink the government unworkable and politically risky ahead of the 2024 elections.
These findings from a new poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research show just how messy the financial tug-of-war between President Joe Biden and House Republicans could be. At stake is the full faith and credit of the federal government, which could default on its obligations unless there is a deal this summer to raise or suspend the limit on the government's borrowing authority.
Biden this month proposed a budget that would trim deficits by nearly $3 trillion over 10 years, but his plan contains a mix of tax increases on the wealthy and new spending that led GOP lawmakers to declare it dead on arrival. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is insisting on budget talks with the White House but has not produced a plan of his own to cut deficits, which Biden has said is a prerequisite for negotiations.
The new poll finds U.S. adults are closely divided over whether they want to see a bigger government offering more services or a smaller government offering fewer services. But a clear majority — 60% — say they think government is spending too much altogether. Just 16% say the government is spending too little, while 22% say spending levels are about right.
U.S. adults were previously less supportive of spending cuts, a possible sign of how the pandemic and a historic burst of aid to address it have reshaped politics. Compared with 60% now, 37% called for spending cuts in February 2020, as COVID-19 was beginning to spread throughout the U.S. By May, even fewer, 25%, wanted less spending, after the virus had forced major disruptions to public life, the economy and the health care system.
Retiree Peter Daniluk acknowledged the tensions over the federal budget by saying the government might be “a little too” large, but “you’ve got to spend money in order to make things better.” The 78-year-old from Dryden, New York, voted for Biden and believes there should be more funding for the environment and military, while also preserving Social Security and Medicare.
"The rich don’t pay enough of the taxes — that’s the problem," he said. “They know how to get out of paying their proper share.”
Inflation jumped as the U.S. economy recovered from the pandemic. GOP lawmakers have blamed Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package for rising prices as they’ve pushed for spending cuts, while the president says inflation reflects global factors involving supply chains and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Federal expenditures are expected to be equal in size to roughly 24% of all U.S. economic activity for the next several years, a figure that will likely grow as an aging population leads to more spending on Social Security and Medicare. Government spending accounted for just 20.5% of U.S. gross domestic product a decade ago, according to the White House Office of Management and Budget.
Even if a majority of adults desire a tightened budget, the challenge for lawmakers trying to hash out an agreement is that the public also wants higher spending on a wide range of programs. While Biden rolled out a budget that would trim deficits largely through tax increases on the wealthy, GOP lawmakers have struggled so far to gel around a set of spending cuts — and even if they did, the White House is betting that their plan would upset voters.
Roughly 6 in 10 adults say the government is spending too little on education, health care, infrastructure and Social Security, as well as assistance to the poor and Medicare. About half say government is spending too little on border security, child care assistance, drug rehabilitation, the environment and law enforcement.
By comparison, a wide majority — 69% — say the U.S. is spending too much on assistance to other countries. But slashing foreign aid would have almost no impact on the overall size of the government, as it accounts for less than 1% of all federal spending, and major programs such as Social Security and Medicare are causing the government to grow in size over the next decade.
Glenn Cookinham, 43, of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, said inflation and health care expenses are major problems confronting the U.S. as a country right now. A Republican who views Biden as “OK,” Cookinham feels as though the U.S. could pull back on military funding to focus on its own internal challenges.
“I don’t think we should be the police for the rest of the world, really," he said.
About a third of U.S. adults say spending on the military is too little and nearly as many say it’s too much; an additional third say it’s about right.
Bipartisan majorities back more spending on infrastructure and Social Security. But wide differences across party lines on other priorities could be a sticking point in budget talks.
Most Republicans say too much is spent on assistance to big cities (65% vs. just 19% of Democrats), and about half say too much is spent on the environment (51% vs. just 6% of Democrats). Republicans are more likely than Democrats to indicate that the military, law enforcement and border security are underfunded. By comparison, far more Democrats say too little is spent on aid for the poor (80% vs. 38% of Republicans), the environment (73% vs. 21% of Republicans), child care assistance (71% vs. 34% of Republicans), drug rehabilitation (67% vs. 36% of Republicans), and scientific research (54% vs. 24% of Republicans).
There is also a generational breakdown in terms of priorities. Young adults are more likely than older adults to say too little is spent on the environment and assistance to big cities, while more older adults say too little is spent on infrastructure, the military, law enforcement and border security. Young adults are especially likely to think too much is spent in those areas.
For those between the ages of 30-44, who are especially likely to have school-age children, there is a desire for the government to spend more on education.
The poll of 1,081 adults was conducted Mar. 16-20 using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 4.0 percentage points.