Recently, the Pew Research Center released a poll gauging public sentiment on the nation's three big entitlement programs: Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Most Americans believe the programs are in trouble and need to be completely rebuilt or changed substantially. But an even stronger majority wants the programs' benefits to be left alone.
In other words, Americans want change, but only if it doesn't threaten their favorite programs. Members of Congress often hear the same on the deficit: Constituents demand action, but they don't want Medicare or Social Security touched.
Now, let's say you're a member of Congress trying to tackle the deficit. You've spent time looking into the matter, so you know a few things: You know that most Americans believe we can reduce the deficit by taking steps like cutting foreign aid, even though in reality foreign aid accounts for just 0.6 percent of the budget. You know that most Americans don't want tax increases, but you also know that the only way to make major progress on the deficit is to find new revenue and to tackle entitlements. What do you do?
You do what lawmakers have been doing for years when confronted by voters' contradictory impulses: You give your constituents most of what they want (after all, you want to get re-elected), and you hope somehow it will all work out. And if Washington ties itself in knots trying to untangle the American people's competing and contradictory messages, you sympathize with voters who express outrage at the mess on Capitol Hill, even as you privately shake your head that your constituents' demands hand you the impossible task of providing more with less.
Ordinary Americans, who in the course of busy lives might not have the time to delve deeply into complex public policy issues, aren't the only ones delivering contradictory messages. David Leonhardt, a New York Times business columnist, recently pointed out that sophisticated lobbying organizations often talk one way in general terms, but when it comes to specifics, they press hard in the opposite direction.
He singled out the Business Roundtable for using antideficit rhetoric while "it consistently lobbies for a higher deficit" in the form of corporate tax breaks and infrastructure spending. But the criticism applies equally to all the groups that lobby to help themselves and their members, usually through specific tax cuts or spending initiatives, while expressing concern over the deficit.
Legislators are constantly fielding demands for government action, each defensible on its own, that when taken together add up to an out-of-control budget.
But I think that we, as citizens, can help lawmakers get to a fiscally responsible result. How? By recognizing the impossible task we have given them and taking on some of the burden ourselves.
I'm not arguing that we need to familiarize ourselves so intimately with the budget that we can decide whether this weapons program or that highway project deserves cutting. But certainly we can learn to look at the big picture, to understand that cutting the deficit demands hard decisions and difficult tradeoffs, and that even some of our most desired programs need to be reconsidered.
We can do the basic work asked of us by our democracy: Learn our facts, know what's fact and what's opinion, keep a broad perspective, understand the overall problem legislators must resolve, remember that what's good for us might not be good for our neighbors, and think through the implications of our positions.
As for legislators, they need to get past being cynical about the American people, believing that we can't tolerate bad news and that we turn a deaf ear to complexity. In my experience, when you present people with a reasonable argument — for instance, you can't make meaningful progress on the deficit without addressing entitlement programs and the need for more tax revenue — most of them appreciate what you're trying to do. Lawmakers need to treat their constituents more like adults, not always agree to their requests. They need to explain the problem and its possible solutions, and then make a decision.
If both sides — legislators and citizens — do their parts, maybe we can make the impossible task manageable.
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.