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A Closer Look at How the Public Views Defense Spending

A new report from the Program for Public Consultation (PPC) – conducted in collaboration with the Stimson Center and the Center for Public Integrity – found that over three-quarters of the American public supported some level of cuts to the U.S. defense budget. The survey highlights a growing mood in the country that, given the nation’s current fiscal problems, the Department of Defense (DoD) must trim some fat out of its budget.

The results that PPC found ranged from the mundane to the astounding. Sixty-five percent of respondents were surprised at how large the defense budget is in comparison to other discretionary funds, and 60 percent were surprised at how high defense spending is compared to historical spending. Intriguingly, 40 percent of respondents were surprised at how small defense spending is as a share of the whole economy – suggesting that respondents did not know exactly how large the economy is, or how quickly it has grown relative to defense spending. (These somewhat contradictory findings could be a result of the fact that it is difficult to establish a definitive metric of how to view defense spending in historical context – the budget is at its highest level in terms of constant dollars yet near historical lows as a percentage of the economy. Furthermore, what is more important is the bang for the buck that the military is getting.)

Those individuals polled largely supported reductions to some of the fastest-growing portions of the defense budget, but they did not always support the specific proposals to achieve those savings. For example, military health care expenses, one of DoD’s fastest-growing accounts, garnered majority support for cuts in the abstract, but commonly-offered proposals to lower these costs, such as increasing TRICARE premiums or raising the cap on annual expenses, were opposed by majorities of both Democrats and Republicans.

On the issue of curtailing pay and benefits for military personnel, support was not as strong, but there still was a majority in favor of achieving savings, while still preserving overall pay increases for the military. Sixty-percent majorities in both parties supported slowing the growth of tax-free benefits (e.g., housing and food allowances) to military personnel, which have grown faster than military salaries in recent years, in hopes of saving $6 billion a year. Support was more tepid for reforms to the military retirement system, though a slim majority supported phasing in reforms to the system for new recruits. When it came to real-time pay and benefits, however, neither Democrats nor Republicans endorsed restricting the growth of military pay below the growth rate of civilian jobs.

Small majorities also supported cutting a number of procurement projects and limiting several strategic capabilities of the Defense Department. For example, more than half of respondents supported cancelling the F-35 fighter program, the strategic bomber portion of the nuclear triad, and the V-22 Osprey. Surprisingly, there were clear majorities, even among Republicans, for cutting the existing capabilities in each of the armed services, meaning fewer air wings, ships, and battalions and a proportionally smaller military presence on the world stage. This goes far beyond most of the suggestions being proposed by lawmakers today.

General fiscal restraint in DoD began last summer when policymakers passed the Budget Control Act of 2011, which included sizeable reductions to defense spending over the coming decade through annual appropriation caps. This limitation is in line with the recommendations of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Domenici-Rivlin Debt Reduction Task Force, and hopefully will lead to reforms and increased efficiency within the armed forces.

Further reductions, in the form of the sequester’s automatic, across-the-board cuts, now are looming for DoD. Especially for Fiscal Year 2013, these represent aggressive and drastic cutbacks on the Department’s operations, and could be dangerous to U.S. national security. While areas such as deferred personnel costs, benefits, and the acquisition system are ripe for reform over the coming decades, the sequester’s meat-axe approach would chop the efficient and inefficient parts of DoD indiscriminately, and would not allow the Department to implement a coherent, phased-in strategy.

Though the sequester is horrible policy and must be replaced, policymakers should continue to seek reforms to DoD, and the PPC study can serve as a valuable barometer of the public’s opinion. However, the results should be interpreted carefully. Even though respondents were provided with arguments in favor and against reductions to certain areas of the budget, the average citizen does not have the expertise and risk evaluation information to competently make precise decisions on defense spending.

The most encouraging results from the PPC report were never written down, but are evident from the statistics themselves. In many areas, there was clear consensus from both self-identified Democrats and self-identified Republicans in favor of thoughtfully reforming the Defense Department. Hopefully their elected representatives will take the hint.

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