Magazine article Insight on the News

Culture War Belies Every Budget Clash

Magazine article Insight on the News

Culture War Belies Every Budget Clash

Article excerpt

Public-opinion research is one of the critical devices by which the elected official comes to know the hopes, dreams, fears and concerns of the electorate. Although much maligned, it is, as neoconservative columnist Ben Wattenberg noted, one of America's three unique contributions to the practice of democracy.

As Congress begins the daunting task of balancing the federal budget, what are the American people saying about the budget in dozens of national surveys and focus groups from all regions of the country? The public offers a single, definitive conclusion: The American people consider the dramatic reduction and restructuring of the government in Washington to be far more than a fiscal necessity; they consider it a moral imperative.

The imperative is to cut spending, not balance the budget. This is an important distinction. The budget deficit is, to be sure, a symptom of Washington's lack of fiscal discipline. But most Americans do not regard eliminating the deficit per se to be an urgent priority.

When people seek to explain why American society seems to be crumbling around them, they point fingers at Washington. The federal budget is not merely wasteful -- the public estimates that about 50 cents of every dollar goes up in smoke -- it often is injurious to our nation's health.

The electorate takes a collective look around and sees what 30 years of bloated budgets in Washington have built -- high-rise ghettos, consigning the poor to live in cesspools of crime and drugs -- and it thinks, "Not with my tax dollars you don't." They see Washington subsidizing illegitimacy in the inner city and vile artistic contempt for religion in the comfortable suburbs, and they say, "This is wrong." Eighty percent of the American public thinks that declining individual morality and the break-up of the family presage a crisis that will be the dominant political issue well into the next millennium.

When we ask the public what they are looking for from Washington, they emphasize four key elements:

Accountability. They want their elected officials to answer for what they say and do and to be liable for delivering what their programs promise.

Responsibility. They want their representatives to send programs back to the home district, because elected officials are beholden to their constituents when constituents can touch them and feel them.

Simplicity. They want legislators to simplify everything from the tax structure to all the various programs that are repetitive in the mammoth bureaucratic maze. …

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