In response to Suzanne Mettler’s post on Monday, commenter Josh asked for clarification regarding the importance of policy delivery mechanism (e.g., direct cash payment vs. tax break) to citizen understanding and support of government programs. As Mettler noted in her response, the focus of her and Guardino’s experiment is not the effect of the delivery mechanism but the ways in which providing additional information can impact citizens’ evaluations of indirect or “submerged” programs.
In a new paper (available upon request) inspired in part by Mettler’s work, we tackle the effect of delivery mechanism directly with a survey experiment of our own. Our findings confirm that the way a policy is delivered to beneficiaries can have a profound impact on public support for that policy, and that this effect is conditioned by ideology.
We presented survey respondents with a description of a federal housing program, after which they were asked to rate their approval of the program on a seven-point scale. About half of respondents received a description of the real-life Home Mortgage Interest Deduction:
“We’re going to ask you your opinion on a government program intended to help Americans afford to own homes. Under this program, individuals who take out a mortgage to buy a home are eligible to deduct the monthly mortgage interest from their taxable income, thereby reducing their tax burden. The total savings for individuals under this program are estimated to be $94 billion for fiscal year 2011.”
The other half of the respondents were shown a description that differed in two respects: first, the words “eligible to deduct the monthly mortgage interest from their taxable income, thereby reducing their tax burden” were replaced with “eligible for a grant from the federal government to help them afford the monthly payment;” second, the words “The total savings for individuals under this program…” are replaced with “The total government expenditures to individuals under this program…” We believe these contrasts in language were reasonable given the way these types of programs are often framed by elites.
The effect of this manipulation of delivery mechanism is displayed in this bar graph, which displays the percentage of respondents in each treatment group who expressed at least some approval of the program. The effect is considerable, as support drops by about 24% when the program is described as a grant.
The effect of this manipulation was especially pronounced for conservatives. Conservatives appear to be just as willing as liberals to support a government program, provided that it is delivered through the tax code, but less willing to support this program when described as a “grant.”
Is the extra support we observe for the tax expenditure due to a lack of understanding about how such programs actually work? Here our findings are less clear. We included a second experimental factor that varied the amount of information provided, though we focus on program cost rather than distributive impact (Mettler and Guardino’s focus). About half of the respondents in both experimental conditions described above were shown an extra sentence at the end of the program description: “It is estimated that this program will add around $390 billion to the national debt over the next four years.” We expected that this information would come as a bigger revelation to respondents in the tax expenditure group due to the opaque nature of tax expenditures as a policy tool, and that this would reduce the advantage of the tax expenditure. There was little evidence of this when we examined all respondents, however; the debt information reduced support across the board, but no more so for the tax expenditure than the grant, as shown in this graph.
Examining conservative respondents specifically, we do find some evidence that providing debt information modestly tempers the strong positive effect of the tax expenditure condition. In substantive terms, this suggests that while conservatives are much more likely to support a tax expenditure than a comparable direct spending program, this difference is due in part to a lack of understanding about the fiscal impact of tax expenditures.
There is clearly more at work here than conservatives’ failure to account for costs, however. The positive reaction to a tax break as compared to a functionally equivalent grant is present even for liberals, and remains strong for conservatives even in the presence of extra information about program cost. It is quite possible that what we are observing here is a general American antipathy toward “government,” or at least government that looks like government. Alternatively, perhaps it’s about the beneficiaries; Americans may look more generously upon “taxpayers” than they do upon other potential recipients of policy benefits.
The third argument for mandatory voting goes to the heart of our current ills. Our low turnout rate pushes American politics toward increased polarization. The reason is that hard-core partisans are more likely to dominate lower-turnout elections, while those who are less fervent about specific issues and less attached to political organizations tend not to participate at levels proportional to their share of the electorate…A distinctive feature of our constitutional system — elections that are quadrennial for president but biennial for the House of Representatives — magnifies these effects. It’s bad enough that only three-fifths of the electorate turns out to determine the next president, but much worse that only two-fifths of our citizens vote in House elections two years later…But if you think that today’s intensely polarized politics impedes governance and exacerbates mistrust — and that is what most Americans firmly (and in my view rightly) believe — then you should be willing to consider reforms that would strengthen the forces of conciliation.
Political scientists Regina Smyth and William Bianco have written a pithy and interesting analysis of the sorts of deals that might emerge from the Super-Committee and, perhaps more importantly, the kinds of side-payments that party leaders might have to make if one of those deals is to win enough support in each chamber. Here is their analysis. Here is short excerpt:
Many predictions about the shape of a potential deal emerging from the Debt Supercommitte (SC) process have centered on the personal chemistry of committee members, or the dearth of good feeling between congressional Democrats and Republicans. These analyses do not recognize the substance of bargaining, including the set of programs and policies that might be on the chopping block and the degree of overlap in members’ preferences over these specifics. In considering the shape of the potential deals, we base our analysis on measures of legislator preferences, as mediated through the fundamental congressional institution, majority rule, using uncovered sets and two-dimensional NOMINATE data.
Our analysis shows that many different deals can emerge from bargaining among SC members. But if negotiations center on deals that are enactable in the House or Senate, then only two kinds of deals are plausible. The first is a deal in which the House leadership is able to use its influence to accommodate the preferences of moderate Senate Democrats. This outcome is most likely in the case that House Republican leadership perceives the political cost of the reversion point as just too high with election a year away, and expects that the blame for a failure to cut the deficit will fall squarely on House Republican incumbents. However, this possibility becomes unlikely insofar as schemes to avoid defense cuts emerge. Conversely, if political costs are thought to be small, and bargaining is driven by policy concerns, then the pressure of the reversion mechanisms is likely to force House and Senate Democrats to agree to a deal that gives House Republicans most of what they want.
The analysis also reveals the critical role of side payments in securing enactment of a budget deal. Given the configuration of chamber uncovered sets, even if a deal emerges from the SC with strong bipartisan support, it cannot be enacted in both Houses without support from legislators who oppose it on the merits, a problem magnified by the inability to use policy concessions along the second dimension to attract support for a deal. If congressional leaders do not have enough side payments to compel a majority in one chamber to accommodate the preferences of the other – for a deal couched mostly in terms of the size and scope of government – then it is hard to see how Supercommittee process will produce a successful budget deal.
In the end, rather than taking power away from party leaders, the SC process puts them at the center of negotiations from beginning to end, and makes their support an essential component of any successful deal. Given policy deadlock between the House and Senate, leaders’ deployment of side payments is critical for success. Moreover, party leaders can provide important political cover to their caucuses. Leader support of an SC proposal gives their backbenchers a ready-made response to constituent criticisms of a yea vote – in Fenno’s terms, an explanation of Washington activity. It is not surprising, then, that as negotiations on the SC proceed, committee members from both parties are frequently consulting party leaders on both sides of the aisle – these leaders know as well as anyone which deals might be enactable, and control the political and policy resources needed to secure these outcomes.
Finally, our analysis highlights a dilemma facing the Republican leadership. While these leaders might prefer take automatic budget cuts off the table, either because they dislike the policy implications or feel that they and their party will feel the brunt of voter wrath, doing so erodes their bargaining position in budget negotiations. Thus, Republicans leaders must decide which outcome they consider to be more troubling: the prospect of a budget deal that favors Democrats, or the possibility of automatic cuts on programs they and their constituents favor, along with the possibility of significant political costs. Such concerns are consistent with attempts to find a way to sidestep the cuts in defense spending that will be triggered by a failure to enact a deficit-cutting deal. How Republicans resolve these issues will shape what sort of deal emerges from the SC and its prospects for success in the House and Senate.
(We are extraordinarily grateful to Sarah Binder, David Canon, and Larry Evans for their comments on earlier versions of this analysis, and to Keith Poole for providing NOMINATE data. The analysis and findings are our own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.)