Thursday, July 20, 2006

Government waste is a perennial concernamong American voters. Ronald Reagan made cracking down on unnecessary spending a major theme during his presidential campaigns, and over the past quarter-century Congress has adopted various initiatives aimed at slowing the rate of government growth.

This year, House Republicans addressed the theme again, adopting the rhetoric of “spending taxpayer dollars wisely” as one of the party’s four central political messages.

Still, apprehension about wastefulgovernment spending persists like a chronic illness afflicting the body politic. And last month’s report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), outlining more than $1 billion in potential fraud payments to individuals related to relief from Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita, only aggravated the disease.

How much money does government waste in the minds of voters? And are Americans more worried about how the government spends money or collects it? We addressed these two questions in the last American Survey (May 30-June 3; 800 registered voters). The depth of voter concern and cynicism about spending and waste are the political equivalent of a black hole. And as political leaders evaluate the potency of issues and contemplate setting agendas, spending restraint probably trumps tax reform in the minds of most Americans.

As the first chart demonstrates, voters believe more than half of every tax dollar collected by the federal government is wasted (53 cents on average). In fact, voters of all ages and across party lines believe at least half of every dollar is wasted. The issue seems to resonate even more among women (who say on average 59 cents of every dollar are wasted) than among men (who say on average 47 cents of every dollar is wasted).

We also asked voters if they were more concerned about how tax monies are spent or collected. By an overwhelming 85 percent to 12 percent margin, spending trumps collection. This suggests that political leaders emphasizing controlling government spending and reducing waste would find more support than those advocating alternative forms of revenue collection.

These numbers may help explain why tax-reform efforts have stalled in the last couple of years. But at a minimum they underscore the importance of curbing waste. Voters seem less passionate about tax-collecting regimes. They worry more that tax dollars sent to Washington are being wasted.

Given Americans’ attitudes about the federal government’s track record on wasteful spending, voters may be equally cynical about alternative tax-collection systems — answering the question about preferences for tax reform with a popular adolescent response: “Whatever.”

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