What Kind of Defense Budget Would the American Public Make?

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?

A new study conducted by the Program for Public Consultation (PPC) in collaboration with the Stimson Center and the Center for Public Integrity shows that the American public favors deeper defense cuts. A representative sample of Americans were shown the size of the defense budget from different perspectives and presented with arguments that experts make for and against cutting it. 

Other polls on defense spending have mostly asked whether respondents favor or oppose defense cuts, and generally found smaller numbers favoring reductions.  Steven Kull, director of PPC, comments, "This suggests that Americans generally underestimate the size of the defense budget, and that when they receive neutral information about its size they are more likely to cut it to reduce the deficit."

Majorities said that defense spending was more than they expected when it was presented in comparison to other items in the discretionary budget (65 percent), to historical defense spending levels in constant dollars (60 percent), and to the defense spending of potential enemies and allies (56 percent). 

Additional findings:

  • Nuclear weapons received a 27 percent average cut
  • Ground force capabilities were slashed $36.2 billion
  • Eight in 10 respondents favored cutting the Obama administrations proposed budget of $88 billion on war spending in Afghanistan for 2013. (Average cut: 40 percent)
  • Six in 10 respondents favored reducing healthcare costs by having military families and retirees increase their co-pay for drug prescriptions

To read the full study, click here.

How the Study Was Conducted

The study was fielded April 12 to 18 with a sample of 665 American adults (margin of error plus or minus 3.8 percent, accounting for a design effect, plus or minus 4.8 percent). It was conducted using the web-enabled KnowledgePanel®, a probability-based panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population. Initially, participants are chosen scientifically by a random selection of telephone numbers and residential addresses.

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