Ann McFeatters: Don't look to a confused public for solutions to federal budget

By Ann McFeatters

Scripps Howard News Service

Published: Sunday, March 6 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

WASHINGTON — Good news: Washington has avoided a government shutdown for a few more weeks. Bad news: Nobody agrees with anybody else on what comes next. In governmentese, it's called kicking the can down the road. Again.

So President Barack Obama sent Vice President Joe Biden, back from the Middle East, into the fray. Word is Joe didn't really want to go. It's a really big (blank, blank) deal. But not in the good way he regarded passing the health care reform bill. Obama told him to get a budget deal from people who are barely civil to each other. He told Biden to do it "without delay."

Biden would probably rather go to Pakistan — he is scheduled to go to Moldova in a few days — although he should take comfort in not being sent to negotiate a settlement between the NFL players and owners.

Having agreed to cut $4 billion from federal spending, an amount so small given the scope of the budget that it doesn't even show up on a chart, the legislators, under Biden's brokerage, are going to try to devise a budget for the remaining six and a half months of the fiscal year. Republicans want to chop spending by about $60 billion for that period. Democrats don't.

You would think lawmakers would simply take the pulse of their constituents and get this done. But it turns out we voters are terribly confused. According to the latest polls, we want to reign in government spending but we don't want Medicare or Social Security benefits reduced. And as a nation, we remain steadfastly against having our taxes raised. Soaring oil prices are enough.

We want the "fat" cut from federal spending, but we don't agree on what that is. For some, it's providing clean drinking water. For others, it means less food for women and infants and fewer children in Head Start. For many, it's cutting out spending (and jobs) to improve roads and bridges. Still others point out that we're involved in two wars that cost $118 billion a year and now the total pullout of 50,000 troops from Iraq is likely to be delayed. Some are refusing to approve money for protective gear for our soldiers in Afghanistan. But even if we made all those cuts and more, it still would not end deficit spending.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found that Americans of all ages and ideologies agreed it is "unacceptable' to make significant cuts in entitlement programs to reduce the federal deficit, which economists say is the way to balance the budget without raising taxes.

As for state budget woes, the vast majority of us don't want to take away collective bargaining rights of public workers as is happening in Ohio and possibly Wisconsin.

Americans say they do want some wages of public workers frozen during the budget crisis and public workers to make higher contributions for pensions and health care.

The polls didn't ask, however, how Americans feel about a new round of GOP-pushed tax breaks for businesses that worsened the Wisconsin budget deficit. That led the governor to propose $1 billion in cuts in education spending and aid for local governments.

The national poll held a glimmer of a direction for congressional lawmakers to take. More than half of those polled want to increase the retirement age to 69 by 2075, up from 66. An even larger majority supports reducing Social Security and Medicare payments to well-off Americans. If those two actions were taken, the future of Social Security would be vastly improved.

We will tolerate "shared sacrifice," but nobody has told us what exactly that would mean.

So here we are, funding government two weeks at a time. Our hope is in Biden. Maybe he will talk the two sides into submission. As a senator, Biden once emptied a hearing room with just one long-winded question. You go, guy.

Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters@nationalpress.com.

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