The results of this poll were as predictable as the changing of the seasons: As the federal deficit has plummeted, so has the public’s interest in dealing with the federal budget deficit. There is a certain mathematical sense to that, of course, but it is also important not to let this become a lost opportunity.
The federal budget deficit has taken up a lot of attention over the past several years, as the Great Recession drained revenues away from the government, which increased its spending – as it had to – to contend with an economic downturn of historic proportions.
Yet, it was obvious that the deficit would start to come down on its own as the recession eased and tax revenues picked up, and that is what has happened. While deficits, starting in President George W. Bush’s last year in office, reached the $1 trillion level and stayed there for several years, they fell last year by 37 percent – more than one-third – to $680 billion. The balloon was punctured and the fears dissipated.
The differences between Republicans and Democrats are, as always, stark. In fact, the Pew Research Center said the gap between the two parties over the importance of reducing the deficit is the largest in 20 years of polling.
According to Pew, fewer than half of Democrats see further deficit reduction as a top priority, falling behind such goals as improving education, strengthening Social Security and protecting the environment.
Among Republicans, 80 percent said deficit reduction was a top priority, essentially tying it with combatting terrorism for first place on their priority list.
It is normal, and even healthy, to look at pressing issues beyond the deficit as its size diminishes. Indeed, some economists think that, for at least this year, a slightly higher deficit would help to strengthen the economy.
Extended unemployment insurance would clearly do that. So could dealing with such nagging issues as Social Security and Medicare, which are both being strained by the assault of retiring baby boomers.
Still, Washington shouldn’t give up on cutting the deficit. It wasn’t that long ago – before the recession, before the terror attacks of 2001 – that the country was running a surplus for the first time in memory. Whatever a deficit might do for the economy, it’s helpful not to continue racking up debt that will burden the taxpayers of following generations.
This is a perfect area for the Congress to test its new commitment to compromise. Republicans and Democrats recently agreed on a budget and reached accord on a new farm bill and its associated issue of food stamps.
Democrats and Republicans should now find a way to agree to pursue several worthwhile goals, which include education and the environment, but also of reducing the budget deficit.