Back to previous page

Americans want to slash defense spending, but Washington isn’t listening

By ,

Ask your average American whether the defense budget should go up or down in 2013, and by how much, and they’ll tell you to cut spending by a whopping 18 percent. Ask your average member of Congress the same question, and no matter which party they’re from, you’ll likely hear that defense spending should barely budge from where it is right now. Ralph Orlowski GETTY IMAGES Soldiers of the U.S. Army V Corps.

“It’s a sizable gap—perhaps even a missile-sized gap,” suggested R. Jeffrey Smith, an editor at the Center for Public Integrity and former Washington Post reporter, unveiling the findings Thursday morning at the Stimson Center. On average, Smith and his co-authors found the public wants $103.5 billion in defense budget cuts, or 18 percent of the current budget; Republicans want $74 billion cut, on average, Democrats want a $124.4 billion cut, and independents want a $112.2 billion reduction. Participants evaluated 87 percent of defense discretionary spending, so their cuts might even be higher if the entire defense budget were covered.

Now just compare that to what both Republicans and Democrats are currently proposing: Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) and House Republicans are trying to pass a budget that would keep base discretionary spending the same in 2013, as compared to the previous year. President Obama proposes a relatively small $4 billion cut to such spending below current levels. Both parties want to avoid the automatic defense spending cuts that are scheduled to happen in 2013 as part of August’s debt ceiling deal, which slashes defense spending by $63 billion. It's not quite an apples-to apples comparison — the defense budget in the survey was about 1 percent mandatory spending, which falls outside discretionary spending — but there’s a big divide between the public and Washington either way.


Smith acknowledges that it might be tempting to dismiss “the people’s defense budget” — which he co-authored with Steve Kull of the University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation and Matt Leatherman of the Stimson Center—as coming from a misinformed if well-intentioned public. “How can they possibly know how much?” he postulated. “Don’t they know. . .that all this current spending is blessed by military regional commanders, and those regions military commanders get reams of intelligence every day on the perils out there?”

But Smith and his co-authors stress that they designed the study to make participants—who they said were a representative sample—as well informed as possible: they provided context, information and detailed, opposing viewpoints for each part of the budget, replicating budget deliberations as they actually happen in Congress and the White House. Participants considered type of spending—for each divisions of the armed forces, weapons programs, military health care, etc.—and decided whether it was worth, say, spending more money on special ops (yes!) or a new $1 trillion fighter jet (no way).

“It wasn’t a willy-nilly exercise they went through, they made these cuts in an informed manner,” Leatherman said.

By contrast, when Americans are typically asked the question in the abstract— “would you cut defense spending, keep it the same, or increase it?”— most will generally oppose cuts, Kull said. What prompts people to change their minds--so much so that they’d ultimately push for a 18 percent reduction in defense spending?

It’s two things, Kull explains. First, survey participants were given more background: for example, they were shown how defense spending compared to all other kinds of government spending, and how current spending compares historically. Then, they had the ability to specify exactly how they’d treat different types of spending. He explains: “If they can offer a specific amount, it gets away from the blank check problem”--the fear that legislators will slash programs without much rhyme or reason.

The problem, they acknowledge, is that the average American doesn’t typically get the inside look at the budget, and there isn’t much public pressure on policymakers, who’ve gotten an earful from the Pentagon when it comes to defense spending. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, for instance, “is talking about catastrophe and devastation if cuts go further,” said Leatherman. As a result, Smith add later, the “noisy minorities” dominate, and the public is left in the dark.

It needn’t be that way, the researchers insisted. “You say, oh yeah, the public they don’t want cut anything, yet they want a balanced budget. They’re completely incoherent, right? They’re just a big baby, right?” said Kull. “But you give them tools to act in rational way, and they’ll act in a rational way.”

© The Washington Post Company