Can a budget deal halt Congress’ long slide?

Senate and House Budget Committee chairs, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., reached a budget deal Tuesday, and barring a groundswell of opposition from both parties' flanks, Congress is expected to pass it. 

Murray and Ryan tried to celebrate the idea of compromise. Now comes the next test: given that it’s headed into an election year with low approval ratings, it’s unlikely either side thinks it can afford either another shutdown, or be seen cutting too much from popular items. 

Leaving aside for a moment what’s in or out of the deal, the budget process itself has become symbolic of simply whether or not Washington can function. So in the same way business dislikes economic uncertainty that makes it hard to plan, there is also such a thing as political uncertainty – and the kind of anger we’ve seen at Congress this year, if stoked anew, could invite more of it for 2014 and its incumbents.

We’re also reminded of just how hard budget deals are, and why, and it isn’t just because of partisanship. One is that for all the talk about deficits, not all voters see a connection (that doesn’t mean there isn’t one) between deficits and the issue they care most about, the economy. Second, as is well-known, it can be hard for any Congress to please voters who like specific things that government spends money on, while being wary of government spending, generally. That may be especially true in an environment filled with so much cynicism toward either side and toward Congress as a whole.

First, this is the year's trend in congressional approval ratings, including the latest CBS News/New York Times poll, at 10 percent. It would be odd to say approval hasn't "recovered" from this year's budget fights since it was never really high, but it remains a point off its all-time low, just the same.
 
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Next, consider the deficit issue specifically. It’s important, but it’s unclear that it’s a political winner in itself. It never even comes close to “the economy” when voters are asked to volunteer the country’s most important problem, and as we’ve said recently, low ratings of the economy (still only 37 percent positive in this week’s poll) could spell as much trouble for Democrats next year as anything else.

Over years of the CBS News polling, even during times of heated budget debates, rarely is the deficit cited as top problem by more than 10 percent or so. Here’s an example just from the 2012 election. Just 15 percent of voters selected the deficit from a list of top issues in the exit polls – compared to a whopping 59 percent who said the economy.

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And this is a look at those who did say the deficit was their top issue at the ballot box. You’ll see they were more conservative, and already voted Republican, at a far greater rate than the country as a whole. Which suggests that politically, a rhetorical focus on the deficit – at the expense of talking about the economy more directly – could mean that the Republicans, for their part, can risk speaking more to the converted than to a wider group. 
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Of course, the deficit is still seen as serious in its own right – Americans overwhelmingly and routinely say so, and both sides say they want to keep reducing it – and many argue that a large one drags on the economy. Politically, though, it isn’t clear a connection between the deficit and the economy has taken hold in the public. 

In March of this year we found that only a slight majority of Republicans thought a lower deficit would improve the economy, and less than half of all Americans did. Many just weren’t sure what would happen. (Which may well be the right answer.)

Next, consider the tradeoffs people are willing or not willing to make to balance a budget – another big factor heading into an election cycle. When a CBS News poll earlier this year asked voters what they’d be willing to cut, we found quite a bit of opposition to the big-ticket items (including some that are part of mandatory spending, anyway) as well as the usual reluctance to pay more in taxes.

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Along those same lines, spending is connected to more than dollars – as with any budget, it signals priorities, and defines who gets what. This comes back again to the economy. The budget now has to be done in an environment where few voters think Washington does anything to help the middle class (in which, most Americans see themselves) while at the same time, partisans divide over who they think it does help. 

As they told us this fall, Republicans see the Obama administration as mainly looking out for the poor, and Democrats overwhelmingly see the Republicans as focused on the rich. That’s an added burden on both sides not just to come up not just with a budget that jibes with their principles, but persuades middle-class Americans that they’re trying to be helpful to them. 

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For context, too, it’s important to remember that budget fights are hardly new, and public desire to keep government spending down is also a long-held view. Polling from Gallup in the 1950s notes widespread public knowledge about the troubles Congress was then having balancing the budget.  Studies show public skepticism about some government spending going back all the way to the 1930s. 

It is also the case that not everyone knows precisely what the government spends money on, and obviously this can have an impact on politics. On the other hand, some would argue, in a republic this isn’t necessarily their job. That's why they elect representatives.

But there’s also little doubt from the numbers that the last year or two proved especially damaging to Congress. Both parties are in low standing especially coming out of the shutdown and, as they noted in the Ryan-Murray press conference, after going from “crisis to crisis”. Their prior inability to agree on a budget has also been a signal of dysfunction, in that it is a tangible thing they're supposed to do; part of the legislative job description. That’s not an image something either side probably wants to rekindle as views of them, and the economy, remain low. We’ll see if passing a budget now, if they do, starts to reverse some of those perceptions. But in the shorter term, it might simply be read as a politically pragmatic result of them.

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    Anthony Salvanto is CBS News elections director

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