As Congress Stalls on the Budget, the People Weigh In

Dollars closeup
Dollars closeup

The latest budget news from Capitol Hill - that the Republicans on the House Budget Committee are postponing markup of the annual tax and spending framework until March - sure sounds like a tune we've all heard before. Instead of coming together to move the budget process forward, another round of partisanship is moving us toward gridlock. The net result, instead of coming up with a budget that reduces the deficit the way Congress has agreed they will, Congress is simply kicking the can further down the road.

There is a way to help get beyond the current impasse: members of Congress can look to what an informed representative sample of Americans - called a Citizen Cabinet - has said on the budget and use that as a guide for finding common ground.

Voice Of the People's recent, national survey of the Citizen Cabinet included nearly 7,000 registered voters and found majorities of Republicans and Democrats agree on measures that would reduce the projected deficit by $52 billion. Yes, actual bipartisan agreement that would cut the deficit.

The in-depth survey was developed by the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland and was vetted with congressional staffers from both parties. The panel was recruited by Nielsen Scarborough. Once the survey is completed by the representative panel, the simulation is made available at for anyone to try for themselves.

In it, respondents were presented the president's FY 2016 budget and sources of general revenues, and then given the opportunity to propose their own federal budget. After a briefing on the deficit and hearing strong pro and con arguments whether or not it should be cut, clear majorities agreed on $10 billion in spending cuts. No spending areas were increased by a majority of Americans.

Perhaps even more noteworthy: The biggest deficit reductions came from revenue increases totaling $41 billion that drew bipartisan support. Despite what many in Congress are saying, the American people seem open to a balanced approach that includes both cutting spending and raising taxes (on the wealthy, at least).

The most striking difference between the president's proposed budget and the people's budget is that the majority of the people go further than the president in cutting the deficit, even though they had fewer options for making changes. If the president were to get all the changes he proposes - a big if, given congressional dynamics - he would reduce the projected deficit $113 billion for 2017.

The majority of Americans, however, reduce the projected deficit more than twice as much - $277 billion, through a combination of $58 billion in spending cuts and $219 billion in revenue increases. Eighty two percent find convincing the argument that reducing the deficit should be a top priority.

At the same time, the public does have some similarities to Congress, as there were substantial differences between Republicans and Democrats. Their level of spending cuts is similar, but they target different areas; and while Republicans do raise revenues, they do so much less than Democrats.

Nonetheless they are able to find substantial common ground. Majorities of both parties converge on $10 billion of spending cuts, led by cuts to subsidies to agricultural corporations ($3 billion), and followed by $1 billion cuts to seven other programs.

Interestingly, many of the areas of agreement for revenue increases are ones proposed in Obama's budget. While he is not entirely precise about how he plans to do so, the president proposes increasing revenues from the wealthy by $56 billion in 2017, increasing to twice that amount by 2024. In the survey a majority of both Republicans and Democrats favor a 5 percent increase in the income taxes on incomes over $200,000, generating $34 billion. The overall majority (but not Republicans) go further and raise income taxes on incomes over $1 million by 10 percent, raising the total revenue generated to $49 billion - nearly matching Obama's proposed short term increase for 2017, but not his long term one.

Very large majorities from both parties also adopt two other ideas that appeared in Obama's 2016 budget and reappeared this year. One is taxing carried interest as ordinary income (i.e. doing away with the hedge fund manager's tax break), generating $1.8 billion. Another is requiring large financial institutions to pay a fee of seven-tenths of a percent on their uninsured debt, generating $6 billion.

Another proposal from the president - to raise the top tax rate on capital gains and dividends from 23.8 to 28 percent (yielding $15-22 billion) - is supported by three quarters overall and half of Republicans.

So, when members of Congress complain that finding common ground on the federal budget is too hard a task, it is important to note that the American people can do it - in less than half an hour. Perhaps it's time to stop kicking the can down the road and start listening to the common sense of the American people.

This first appeared in The Hill on March 1, 2016