Public Ignorance about the Federal Budget

March 3rd, 2011

By Tom Carter

It’s no secret that Americans in general are ignorant about the details of the federal budget.  All you have to do is listen to people talk, read blogs, and suffer through the supremely stupid chain e-mails that clog all our in-boxes.  Just how ignorant many people are is depressing.

The Fact Checker” in the Washington Post yesterday took a look at public knowledge about federal spending from the standpoint of several polls.  An example they focused on was funding for foreign aid, a perennial target in some quarters.  I find that particularly interesting because when I was working in USAID I was often told by friends and acquaintances that we spend too much on foreign aid and that it should be cut.  On closer questioning, it always emerged that they had no idea how small the amount really was.

According to one poll, respondents thought the foreign aid part of the federal budget was an average of 27 percent.  The real amount is about one percent.

According to a recent Gallop poll, “…59 percent of people favor cuts to foreign aid, but a majority oppose cutting any other programs, including Social Security, Medicare and education.”  Wonderful — most people want to cut something that wouldn’t even be noticeable, and most don’t want to cut some of the largest items in the budget.

Another poll “…found that 75 percent of people say foreign aid should be cut, but the only other programs that a majority of people favor cutting are the budgets of the Internal Revenue Service and the Securities and Exchange Commission.”  My gut likes the idea of cutting funding for the IRS, but my head shakes itself and mutters, “How stupid!”

As noted in the article,

To some extent, politicians are to blame for some of the public confusion. The debate in recent weeks has focused on cuts in the discretionary part of the budget — which is only about one-third of the government’s $3.7 trillion budget — and the tiny sliver of spending on foreign aid was a big part of that debate. For his part, President Obama, in his 2012 budget, highlighted cuts to relatively minor programs and avoided making proposals for reining in the cost of the big-ticket spending programs.

The sad thing is, some of the politicians are as ignorant as their constituents, and others don’t much care about the substance of what they’re doing as long as they can get re-elected.

Here’s a great interactive graphic showing federal revenues and expenditures over the past 30 years.  Take a look at it.  I have to warn you, though — it’s hard to get past the first two numbers at the top of the chart showing revenue and spending for President Obama’s proposed 2012 budget:  Revenue – $2.6 trillion, Spending – $3.7 trillion.  Say what?

Of course, our incompetent Congress hasn’t passed a single appropriations bill for FY 2011.  All were supposed to have been passed by September 30, 2010.  Instead the government has been operating on a series of Continuing Resolutions (CR), which supposedly say the government can spend what they spent last year.

No budget, no CR, and the government shuts down.  Well, not really.  Maybe half of it shuts down.

The last CR expires tomorrow (March 4) and there’s supposed to be another that will expire March 18; it may already be passed and signed.  After that, they’ll do another CR, maybe for the rest of the fiscal year ending September 30.  The big haggle is Republicans want to reduce funding via the CRs, and Democrats want to reduce less and in different ways.  In addition to being an abrogation of their responsibility, it’s a perversion of the CR process itself.

Incompetent careerist politicians and an ignorant public — the perfect storm.

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