IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.
Image: lots of one dollar bills
skodonnell / Getty Images

On government spending, Americans and GOP aren’t on the same page

In general, Americans think the government spends too much. The problem for Republicans: On key issues, the public actually wants more spending, not less.


A couple of months ago, I had some interactions with Rep. Don Bacon about his party’s debt ceiling tactics. As far as the Nebraska Republican was concerned, the GOP was justified threatening to impose an economic catastrophe, on purpose, because in the 2022 midterms, voters elected a new House Republican majority in order to cut government spending.

It was a flawed argument for a handful of important reasons. For one thing, those same voters expanded the Democratic majority in the Senate, which was hardly evidence of a national endorsement of a far-right agenda. For another, Republican candidates didn’t exactly warn the electorate that they were prepared to deliberately crash the economy.

But there was another problem hanging overhead: Were Bacon’s assumptions about public attitudes correct? Are Americans actually desperate to see GOP lawmakers cut government spending? The Associated Press took a closer look in its latest national poll:

In the federal budget standoff, the majority of U.S. adults are asking lawmakers to pull off the impossible: Cut the overall size of government, but also devote more money to the most popular and expensive programs.

The good news for Republicans is that most Americans agree with the party’s goals in a broad, general sense: Six in 10 U.S. adults agree that the federal government spends too much money.

The bad news for Republicans is that this is a superficial belief that unravels when Americans are pressed on the details.

The worst news for Republicans is that the public actually wants more government spending, not less, on a wide range of domestic priorities.

In fact, the closer one looks, the more it appears much of the public believes the government should be quite a bit more ambitious when it comes to public investments. For example, according to the polling data, 53% of U.S. adults believe the government isn’t spending enough money on assistance for child care. What’s more, 58% of Americans believe more should be spent on Medicare. The same results found that 59% of Americans believe we spend too little on assistance to the poor, 62% said we spend too little on infrastructure, 63% believe we spend too little on health care, and 65% said we spend too little on education.

In fact, across 16 separate categories, there was only one issue — foreign aid — on which most Americans (69%) said the government is currently spending too much.

To be sure, I think the public is completely wrong about this, and investments in foreign aid should be broadly increased. What’s more, foreign aid represents less than 1% of the budget, so even if it were eliminated entirely, it wouldn’t exactly eliminate the deficit and achieve the kind of “balance” the GOP is striving for.

But let’s not miss the forest for the trees: Republicans are threatening to harm us on purpose unless Democrats agree to massive spending cuts, but as far as the American mainstream is concerned, there simply isn’t much of an appetite for these cuts.

As a Washington Post analysis concluded, “This poll shows why McCarthy would prefer this debate remain in the abstract, but at some point it will have to involve actual proposed cuts. And assuming the proposed cuts are actually substantial, they are very likely to give even the many Americans who think the government spends too much something to hate.”