Cutting is complicated

People think voters are angry now? Just wait until they get all those spending cuts they keep asking for. Or don't. For Republicans, should they win back the House of Representatives, more gridlock on spending could bring political peril. But if they succeed, the Age of Austerity — American-style — could very well turn our current Tea Party-driven politics upside down. 

In just 18 months, the political narrative of hope and change in 2008 has turned to anger over federal spending and the growth and reach of government. One month from now President Obama's debt commission will return its recommendations, though its own members don't expect enough consensus to actually earn a vote in Congress. Without a bipartisan plan, GOP leaders — likely in control of the House — will be left to come up with cuts they have yet to specify and Americans have yet to agree on before they begin campaigning again 18 months from now. 

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What spending cuts are voters ready for? They're not exactly sure. New data from The Hill 2010 Midterm Election Poll show a majority of voters are sure they want a reduction in government spending, even if it means less money for their own districts. But majorities of likely voters — Republicans, independents and Democrats — also oppose cuts to Social Security, Medicaid or defense spending, according to the poll, conducted by Penn, Schoen and Berland. 

Republicans have proposed a spending freeze, but capping spending at 2008 levels would only save $100 billion, not even 8 percent of the latest $1.3 trillion deficit figure. What Republicans know for sure is that victorious Tea Party-backed candidates will come to town prepared to do battle over the elimination of earmarks and pork spending. At least until the first important constituent appeals to them for support of a worthy project back home, new GOP members will be united in their zeal for banishing the bacon. Though some senior GOP members speak privately of the earmark moratorium House Republicans passed earlier this year as a political gimmick, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) plans to lead the fight with the expanded Tea Party caucus in both chambers to make it permanent, and outside groups will add pressure as well. This summer, when House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Republicans may allow the earmark moratorium to expire for projects of merit (should they take control of the House of Representatives) he received a swift blast from the Club for Growth, which warned that if House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) becomes Speaker and doesn't enforce a complete ban on earmarks, fiscal conservatives should find someone else who will. This month Cantor called for a bipartisan extension of the earmark moratorium. 

What happens when new members of Congress find out that earmarks account for less than 1 percent of the total annual budget? As Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) said of the incoming deficit-cutters in The New York Times this week, “there are a lot of things people are going to have to be educated about ... they're thinking they can come in and eliminate earmarks and everybody's going to be happy on the spending side. Gee, that just scratches the surface.”

Republicans, including their newest members, are virtually unanimous in their opposition to new taxes to reduce deficits. And Democrats and Republicans alike on Capitol Hill concede that some version of entitlement reform is the only way to eliminate rising deficits. Yet polls show a majority of Americans don't know that Social Security, Medicare and defense spending make up half the federal budget. 

Sure, Americans don't want bailouts for wealthy corporations, and they don't want debt. But the country is divided, and so are both political parties, over what essential services are. It's a thorny subject — just ask the Greeks, the British and the French. 

Republicans, should they prevail in winning back a majority in the House on Tuesday, have their work cut out for them. Even if they don't control the Senate, and can't be expected to pass bills into law, they will be expected to start trimming. And get reelected at the same time. It will be a mighty task.

Stoddard is an associate editor at The Hill.