Consulting the American People on National Defense Spending

May 10, 2012

With the United States facing large budget deficits, a major debate is underway in Washington DC over whether defense spending will be subject to cuts.

Unless Congress succeeds in agreeing on a new budget, current law calls for the 'sequestration' provision to kick in, which would cut defense spending 10 percent. Many voices on both sides of the aisle have expressed substantial concern over that prospect.

But how does the American public feel about the potential of cutting defense to mitigate the deficit? If a representative sample of Americans were at the table when decisions were being made, what would they say?

Existing polls present a somewhat confusing picture of American public attitudes about defense spending. This issue has become confused in public discussion, because many polls simply ask Americans whether they favor cutting defense, increasing it, or keeping it the same. These find that more favor cuts than increases, but those favoring cuts are still fewer than half of those surveyed. When pollsters frame the issue in terms of the budget deficit, the number ready to cut defense may rise to about half. As respondents are given more information, support for reductions rises. And when they are asked to choose between defense and other programs, defense is consistently the most popular program to cut and is cut by majorities.

The Program for Public Consultation in December 2010 did a survey in which respondents were presented the discretionary budget and asked to propose their own budget. In this case 70 percent cut defense spending, with the average respondent cutting the base defense budget 18 percent.

This still leaves open many questions. Though it appears that when Americans see how much is spent on defense compared to other items in the discretionary budget they are inclined to cut defense, there is other information they could be exposed to that might elicit a different response. Opponents of defense cuts often emphasize that when compared to spending on Social Security and Medicare, defense spending is rather modest and that as a percentage of GDP, defense spending is low and has been on the decline for decades now. Advocates of defense cuts argue that considering how much potential enemies and allies spend, US spending is way out of proportion. They also argue that the US defense spending is high historically, but then opponents say that it is consistent with other times in history when the US was at war.

Another key question is how Americans would respond if they heard the key arguments that proponents and opponents of defense cuts make on the issue. If Americans were to hear a debate on this issue, which side would be more likely to win?
Finally, the defense budget is not just one big number. It consists of numerous programs that Americans may view quite differently. If Americans were presented the defense budget broken down into major areas, presented arguments for and against cutting each area, and given the tools to make their own budget as they saw fit, what would this budget look like?

To find out, the Program for Public Consultation joined forces with the Stimson Center's Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense program and the Center for Public Integrity's National Security program.

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