The growing debate over whether Washington has a ‘spending problem’

February 15, 2013

Ask any Republican about government spending, and you’re virtually assured of receiving the same reaction: It needs to be reined in -- big time. Ask a Democrat, and the answer is increasingly difficult to predict.

In the past week, leading Democrats have answered the question of whether Washington has a spending problem in conflicting ways, with at least two big names offering forceful arguments that Washington doesn’t have a spending problem.

But doing so not only risks putting them at odds with the GOP, but with the majority of Americans, too.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told “Fox News Sunday” last weekend that “it is almost a false argument to say that we have a spending problem,” even as she cited a budget deficit "problem" that needs to be addressed. It’s what the government is spending money on that matters, Pelosi argued, rather than total spending. “It isn't as much a spending problem as it is a priorities -- and that is what a budget is: setting priorities,” she said.

In light of Pelosi's remark, White House press secretary Jay Carney was asked the next day whether the president believes there is a spending problem, and he responded: “Of course the president believes that we have a spending problem.” The root of that problem, Carney argued, is the cost of health care, which Obama sought to address with his 2010 reform law.

Then, on Thursday, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said: “I want to disagree with those who say we have a spending problem.” Rather, he argued, “it’s because we have a mis-allocation of capital, a mis-allocation of wealth.”

For Democrats, sounding like Pelosi and Harkin is a politically risky proposition. Polling shows the American public clearly thinks the country has a spending problem. Nearly nine in 10 said reducing spending should be a high priority for Obama and Congress, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, and nearly half of Americans said it should be among the highest priorities. Similarly, more than seven in 10 Americans in a recent Pew Research Center survey said reducing the budget deficit is a top priority.

It’s a concern that has grown dramatically since Obama took office. In 2009, the same Pew poll found that only about half of Americans said deficit reduction was a top priority. Given the consistent GOP refrain that Obama is a free-spending, big-government liberal, it's not an entirely surprising development.

Which is all the more reason why Obama has to be ever more careful when he talks about spending than Pelosi or Harkin. Harkin is about to retire, and Pelosi is the leader of a House Democratic Caucus that has grown increasingly liberal as recent elections have decimated the ranks of Blue Dog Democrats.

But Obama is the president, and as such, has to answer to a much broader cross-section of Americans. That explains his emphasis on fiscal restraint.

“Over the last few years, both parties have worked together to reduce the deficit by more than $2.5 trillion -- mostly through spending cuts, but also by raising tax rates on the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans,” the president said in his State of the Union address, in which he set a goal for $4 trillion in deficit reduction.

As new debates over the debt ceiling, the sequester and the budget seize national attention, Republicans will no doubt lob familiar attacks related to spending. And they’re working, to an extent.

But as we often note in this space, the devil is the details. Cutting spending sounds good on its own, but when presented as part of a choice, it's less appealing to Americans.

In a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll from last summer, the public was split down the middle over whether to increase federal spending to create jobs and improve the economy or to avoid a big increase in the federal budget deficit. So even though they must be careful, Democrats have a fair amount of leverage when it comes to fighting cuts to programs they champion.

As is often the case in politics, how someone says something is almost as important as what they are saying. Obama, Pelosi and Harkin aren’t as far apart in their desire to preserve the programs and government services they care about -- and by extension, the spending behind those programs – as their words might suggest.

But in the current climate, saying there is no spending problem carries the risk of alienating Americans from the rest of what you have to say. The White House seems to be keenly aware of that, but Democrats who say the party has no spending problem may not be doing their side any favors.

Chuck Hagel's near-miss: Chuck Hagel came within one vote of becoming the next secretary of defense on Thursday, as four Republicans joined with all 53 Democrats and two independents in voting to end debate and bring Hagel's nomination up for a vote.

Though the final vote was 58-40, that was only because Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) changed his vote to 'no' for procedural reasons. In actuality, Hagel had 59 votes for cloture -- just one shy of the 60 needed.

The next vote isn't for 12 days, a period during which Republicans hope to unearth something else about Hagel that forces the White House and Democrats to table his nomination.

Republicans have said that, at that point, they plan to give Hagel an up or down vote.

Fixbits:

Obama calls the Hagel filibuster "unfortunate."

Obama is open to the idea of getting rid of the penny.

Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) says the woman he sent affectionate tweets to during Tuesday's State of the Union is his daughter, whom he learned about three years ago. Cohen's office initially said she was the daughter of a family friend. Cohen says he was trying to protect her privacy.

Politifact rates the claim of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) that he still lives in the working-class neighborhood he grew up in "mostly true." Some have suggested the $600,000-plus price tag for the house, which Rubio is selling, suggests it is not, in fact, in a "working-class neighborhood."

Retiring Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) takes some parting shots at Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D), urging his would-be primary opponent to focus on his day job and fix Newark.

Ron Paul is getting into the podcasting and radio business.

Must-reads:

"Dissecting McCarthy's Whip Operation" -- David M. Drucker, Roll Call

"Senate Democrats propose cuts, tax hikes on rich to avoid sequester" -- Lori Montgomery, Washington Post

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Sean Sullivan · February 14, 2013