Soldiers of the U.S. Army V Corps. (Ralph Orlowski/GETTY IMAGES)

“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.


(SOURCE: STIMSON CENTER, HOUSE BUDGET COMMITTEE, OFFICE OF MANAGEMENT AND BUDGET)

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.”