President Joe Biden has released the proposed Budget of the U.S. Government, Fiscal Year 2023. The budget document is 148 pages long. It presents a very lengthy list of proposed government spending initiatives, along with a discussion of the virtues and benefits of each. The total proposed spending for 2023 is $5.8 trillion.
As is usual in a proposed budget, Biden's document has many of the characteristics of a political statement, akin to a campaign platform. It highlights aspirational goals and emphasizes the positive outcomes that will occur if the budget is adopted as proposed. The budget plan, history shows, is largely symbolic and will be dramatically altered before Congress hopefully passes a new budget this fall (the new fiscal year 2023 begins Oct. 1).
An important question from my vantage point is well how the administration's proposals for spending the public's money fit with the public's views and priorities. This is a very complicated question to answer. The budget covers hundreds of areas of government spending involving every aspect of the nation's existence, domestic and international. Gallup has in the past and will continue to summarize public opinion relating to many of these issues. It will be critically important to take public opinion into account as the debate on the budget continues in the months ahead.
As this process unfolds, there are really two questions that need to be answered in reference to each budget proposal:
- Is the proposed spending on each program or issue something the public thinks the government should be doing at all?
- Is the proposed spending on each program or issue the right way to address the issue, assuming it is something with which the government should be involved?
The first question doesn't address the underlying seriousness of the problem. Rather, the question asks if the government is the right entity to be attacking the problem or issue. This is an important distinction. It addresses the fundamental division in American public opinion between those who believe the government should be more involved in addressing society's problems and those who believe the government is already doing too much that should be left to individuals and private entities.
The proposed budget document in many ways skips over this distinction. Naturally enough, the Biden administration believes that the government should be involved in each area listed in the budget proposal (or it wouldn't have been included). This, in turn, leads to the second question, which speaks to the specifics of how the government addresses each concern -- including opinions about how effective the government can be in solving the problem.
The answers to these questions are highly disputatious. This is, in many ways, as it should be in a representative democracy. In theory, arguments and discussions about the government's role and government spending should ultimately lead to decisions that profitably reflect collective wisdom.
Examples: What the Government Should Be Doing
Some of the issues addressed in the budget proposal document belong without question in the government's domain. These include immigration, foreign relations, the military and defense, and the economy. Few would dispute that it is the government's role to deal with these issues. The debate thus devolves to exactly what the government should be doing about each.
There is already debate, for example, over the shift in the budget from the Trump administration's emphasis on border protection (i.e., building fences) to border processing (i.e., more funds for immigration judges and asylum processing). Americans for their part view immigration as a positive for the country but are divided on the optimal level of immigration. The public likes the idea of increased Border Patrol funding and border security but disapproves of the idea of building more walls.
The budget proposal also includes increased funding for the military. This is opposed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who said, "No, we do not need a massive increase in the defense budget." Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, on the other hand, says the budget "woefully" underfunds defense. Americans' views on defense spending, as I recently reviewed, are complicated. Americans admire the military and want it to be No. 1 in the world. But the public is more divided on the issue of whether defense spending should be increased.
The Biden budget proposal addresses inflation in a number of ways. This is a good thing. As my colleague Lydia Saad pointed out in her recent review of Americans' views of the most important problem facing the nation, "Inflation doesn't dominate Americans' perceptions of the most important problem facing the country today the way it did in the early 1980s, but it's more top-of-mind than it's been in over three decades and appears to be taking a toll on Americans' broader economic confidence."
I think it's fair to say that by this point in U.S. economic history, Americans assume the government has a significant role to play in promoting and maintaining the health of the economy. The plans to reduce inflation outlined in the budget proposal are wide-ranging but indirect and complex, making it difficult to say, at least at this point, how they may fit with American public opinion. But the goal of reducing inflation is clearly one the public heartily embraces.
Examples: Whether the Government Should Be Involved at All
The arguments on some issues will come down to the degree to which each should be a part of the government's actions at all. These include federal involvement in and proposed increased spending on climate change, healthcare, and a variety of budget emphases on diversity, equity and justice.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has already noted that "the White House budget request that President Biden published today offers the clearest possible reminder that the Biden administration's far-left values are fundamentally disconnected from what American families actually need." This sweeping assertion is testable by looking at public opinion in reference to various points in Biden's proposed budget.
- Healthcare: Slightly more than half of Americans, for example, approve of the Affordable Care Act, and over half say it is the government's responsibility to make sure all Americans have healthcare coverage. At the same time, Americans tilt toward favoring a healthcare system based on private insurance rather than a government-run healthcare system.
- Climate change: Attitudes on climate change are highly differentiated along partisan lines, underscoring the contentiousness that will arise in consideration of the many Biden budget proposals spread throughout the document addressing the issue of climate change. On the whole, Americans agree global warming is happening and think it's caused by human activities -- but the majority are not highly worried about it, nor do they believe it will pose a serious threat in their lifetime.
- Racial justice: And, while a majority of Americans are dissatisfied with the state of race relations in this country, levels of support for various ways of addressing racial inequities vary widely.
Government and Leadership Are Viewed by Americans as Nation's Top Problem
The Biden budget proposal is so wide-ranging and comprehensive that it touches on essentially every concern mentioned by Americans when asked to name the most important problem facing the nation. But it is worth emphasizing that -- as Saad points out in her review of Americans' views of the most important problems facing the nation today -- the No. 1 single concern of the people involves issues classified by Gallup as worries about the government and poor leadership. This is, in some ways, a "meta concern," rising above and encompassing the whole budget process per se.
When Americans name the government and leadership as the top problem facing the nation, they are in reality focusing on several different issues. First, as noted above, there are concerns about the degree of government intervention in American life. Second, there are concerns about the way in which the government bureaucracies and agencies go about their business. Third, there are concerns about the way in which elected representatives go about their business.
The proposed budget does address the second of these concerns. It includes a number of sections aimed at making the government work more efficiently and effectively. (As noted in the document, the laudable intent is "strengthening and empowering the federal workforce; delivering excellent, equitable and secure federal services and customer experience; and managing the business of government to build a better America.") That's for the good, although it's questionable just how much change in these areas can be effected, regardless of the intent.
The third issue as noted above is probably the most common response included by Gallup in this government/leadership category. In a highly partisan environment, many Americans who identify with one party believe that the nation's most important problem is the negative influence of the opposite party. Republicans complain about Biden and liberal Democrats, while Democrats complain about Donald Trump and Republican leadership. The proposed budget doesn't have much to say about politics per se. Of course, the rancor and wrangling over the budget will, if anything, increase political divisions in the months ahead.
Few Americans will read the administration's proposed budget document. But what they hear about it will mainly serve to amplify the same partisan arguments and disputes to which the public has been exposed over the years. The ongoing programs and functions of most government departments and agencies, in reality, have significant inertia. The tweaks in spending incorporated into a new budget, when passed, will in many instances create only minor course changes rather than wholesale shifts in direction.
It is nevertheless worthwhile to put things in the context of the American people's concerns and priorities. Elected representatives, in theory, reflect the views of the underlying population. For many reasons, the connection between what Congress does and the wishes of the people is tenuous, reflected in a Congress approval rating hovering around 20%. Assessing public opinion on a continual basis using representative survey samples helps correct the disconnect between the public's views and the ways in which the government ends up spending their (the public's) money.