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Are We Ready to Cut Defense Spending? What the Polls Say

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Although neither the White House nor Congress seem eager to apply the deficit-reduction axe to the Pentagon's record-level budgets, the American public appears ready. This is the upshot of a January poll conducted by the Program for Public Consultation (PPC), a joint effort of the Center on Policy Attitudes and the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy. There is one important caveat, though: the public's preference hinges on knowledge about how much treasure we actually pour into the Pentagon's coffers.

The PPC poll takes an interesting approach to querying the public about policy options: First, it informs participants about actual spending levels in discretionary accounts, and then asks them to apply reductions, account by account. The result: a mean reduction to annual discretionary spending of $146 billion. Of this, the participants take $121.8 billion out of the defense account. The lion's share of the defense cut -- $109.4 billion -- was applied to the Pentagon's "base budget," which excludes war funding.

The poll's findings accord with the recommendations of various deficit-reduction reports issued last year, including those of the Sustainable Defense Task Force, the Domenici-Rivlin Debt Reduction Task Force, and the president's bipartisan Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. These found it both possible and necessary to roll-back planned Pentagon budgets by as much as $100 billion per year.

How does the PPC poll compare with other surveys on defense spending and deficit reduction?

A January poll conducted by CBS affirmed majority support for cutting defense as part of deficit reduction -- 52% versus 44% -- but also found that defense was not as popular a target as some other programs. The preference for cutting defense was completely reversed in a separate poll conducted by Gallup and USA Today, which found 57% opposed to deficit-related defense cuts. How to reconcile these results?

Gallup routinely polls the public on whether defense spending is too high, too low, or "just right." Since 2003, "too much" has consistently out-polled "too little." In 2010, the split was 34% versus 27% -- with a plurality settling on the status quo as "just right." A January 2011 Rasmussen survey echoes the Gallup findings: support for defense cuts (32%) out-polls support for defense increases (27%), while support for the status quo registers 37%.

When moving from a three-choice to a two-choice question -- cuts versus no cuts -- we might expect the "too little spending" and "just right" cohorts to band together and overwhelmingly oppose cuts by margins approaching two-to-one. But this isn't what the recent deficit reduction polls show, even when a majority is found to oppose cuts.

Much of the difference among the polls is due to context -- policy context and information context. Economic concerns clearly predominate today. And the clamor for federal spending cuts is strong. In this context, support for constraining or rolling back military spending has grown stronger, too.

Of course, wording also matters. The CBS poll that found majority support for defense cuts used the phrase "reduce defense spending," while the Gallup poll that found the reverse asked about cuts to "the military and national defense." Mentioning the military may invoke a "support the troops" frame. And "the military" may have a more positive resonance generally with the public than does "defense" on its own. By contrast, the CBS poll's option to "reduce defense spending" keeps the focus on the act of spending, which may remind participants that the point of the exercise is deficit reduction.

Most important: support for substantial cuts in the Pentagon budget grows dramatically when poll participants know the actual level of defense spending and know how it measures up relative to (i) spending in other areas and/or (ii) the amounts that other nations spend on defense. This is made clear in Rasmussen polls that test support for setting US defense spending as some multiple of what other nations spend. In these polls, 40% respond that the United States need not spend three times as much as any other country -- although, in fact, it certainly spends at least five times as much. As the multiple goes up, support for spending goes down.

What do these findings portend for achieving substantial defense savings? Much depends on what people know. Also, much depends on people's relative concern about the economy. If fear of military threats and worry about military weakness increase in prominence relative to economic concerns then support for cutting defense may decline. In this light, Defense Secretary Gates' claim that any substantial rollback in future spending plans risks catastrophe or calamity -- whether true or false -- could help push popular opinion back toward its pre-crisis balance.

So far, neither popular sentiment nor the findings of the deficit-reduction groups are reflected in policy action on the defense budget. Secretary of Defense Gates has offered to trim spending plans by only $78 billion total over a five-year period, after rebuffing a somewhat more ambitious White House request to find $150 billion in savings during 2011-2016. And deficit-reduction plans by House Republicans and the Republican Study Committee exempt the Pentagon almost entirely.

Carl Conetta and Charles Knight are co-directors of the Project on Defense Alternatives and members of the Sustainable Defense Task Force. They can be contacted at pda@comw.org.

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