From Sequestration to Solutions

Spending and taxesBy Elaine Mejia, Senior Program Associate

Earlier this month, the sequester hit, and Americans experienced the first of several rounds of automatic federal spending cuts. These cuts took effect despite the fact that 53% of Americans disapprove of the sequester.

Unfortunately, poll results are often fleeting and only speak to superficial, temporary opinions. Americans may disapprove of the sequester, but they also hold beliefs that contradict this opinion or, at the very least, help to explain why this majority view hasn’t translated into national fervor for a “balanced approach” that includes raising taxes.

In particular, Americans believe government is wasteful. Brace yourselves: a September 2011 Gallup survey found that Americans believe the federal government wastes 51 cents of every dollar it spends! No wonder they are not moved to action when they learn that sequestration amounts to a 5% reduction in domestic spending.

Moreover, most Americans have a distorted view of the scale of the work of government. They generally view it as too large, but they are only dimly aware of what it does on a day-to-day basis. These two views – large but vague and wasteful – are the most significant hurdles advocates and others who oppose the spending cuts must work to overcome.

Overcoming those hurdles is essential to staving off further reductions and building support for additional revenues. Here are a few recommendations from our research and field work for how to talk about the sequester.

First, keep the focus on what’s at stake. The fact that the sequester cuts will continue rolling out through the summer creates an important opportunity to grab and keep the public’s attention on the effects. In other words, “keep it real.” Avoid the temptation to lump all of the reductions together into a generic term like “painful spending cuts” or “cuts to vital programs.” Instead, mention specific impacts, ideally ones that people will understand. Examples from the first few weeks include specific stories about air traffic control stations being closed, navy ships being taken out of service, military servicemen no longer receiving college tuition assistance and national parks delaying their spring openings.

Second, resist “sky is falling” rhetoric. The impacts are real and will be felt deeply by some – for example, a family that loses a slot in a public pre-school program or loses its public housing voucher. Nevertheless, resorting to crisis rhetoric can have an effect the opposite of what was intended. Most Americans are already struggling to discern the impacts of the sequestration cuts on their everyday lives. A new Gallup poll released March 13th concludes that most “don’t know enough about the impact of the cuts to judge whether it is good or bad for the country or for themselves.”

Words like “devastating” and “disastrous” will not only sound out of touch, but they can make the problem sound intractable, thereby discouraging people from getting involved. Such language can also set up a “cry wolf” response. A lot of recent rhetoric about the sequester made it sound like the sky was going to fall the day after it went into effect. When that day came and went without obvious impacts for the average person, the whole message was undermined.

Third, avoid technical jargon. It’s all too tempting to defer to jargon in the name of expediency, but terms like sequester, discretionary spending, appropriation, and across-the-board mean little to most Americans. Similarly, leading with long lists of figures is not likely to improve understanding. The sequester reductions will total $85 billion this year and $1.1 trillion over the next decade. It sounds like a lot of money, but without context it adds little to the public debate.

Fourth, don’t lead with the tax proposals. It’s certainly helpful to have a practical revenue plan to offer. Currently, the most common proposals are closing corporate tax loopholes and limiting certain deductions for high-income taxpayers. But it’s important to recognize that these proposals are the means to the ends. Trying to sell people on tax increases without first creating an appetite for adequate public services is like trying to convince someone to take bad-tasting medicine – they have to believe they are ill before they will embrace treatment.

President Obama is now hosting discussions with Congressional leaders, ostensibly to work toward a “grand bargain” agreement that would generate additional tax revenues and enact targeted, rather than widespread, spending cuts. The path toward such an agreement, particularly one that relies substantially on revenues, is an uphill one. But the slope could be made more gradual by collectively employing our best communications strategies. It’s important to remember that the definition of sequester is “to isolate or hide away.” As we all work to talk about the damage these cuts will create, we have to make sure our communications reveal rather than obscure.

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