It may have seemed unthinkable when initially passed in 2011, but on March 1st Congress allowed its final negotiating ploy, known as the sequester, to take effect. Unlike other recent manufactured financial crises in Washington D.C., this time around no one seemed to be in hurry to solve the problem. Congress had several options to avoid the mandatory $1.2 trillion across the board cuts to defense and domestic programs over the next decade, but taking action would have required intense negotiations over what federal programs deserved to be cut over others and other weighty and divisive issues such as the revenue side of the equation. These are topics that recent Congresses have seemingly avoided like the plague, preferring instead to kick the can down the road over and over.
While President Obama and Congress point fingers at each other, the world does not stop, for good or for ill. As we have seen in the news recently, North Korea and Iran continue with ambitions to develop nuclear weapons and the ability to arm medium and long range missiles with those warheads. As Congress fritters away and allows cuts to defense programs, rogue states such as these plow ahead.
In reality, defense programs that would protect the United States against possible missile attacks are popular with Americans and offer an opportunity for politicians in Washington D.C. to coalesce around a platform that would make the country safer.
In a recent national survey we found that, despite months of rhetoric about defense cuts, the American public still strongly supports a robust U.S. missile defense program, especially in the face of threats from countries like Iran and North Korea. Indeed, three quarters of Americans polled favor such efforts. Importantly for policymakers, this is a non-partisan and universal issue, with strong majorities of Democrats and Republicans alike offering their support (69 and 92 percent respectively).
Our study found that not only do 76 percent of the American people desire a fully developed missile defense system, 74 percent agree that it should be ready in the next few years, given that these rogue nations may have medium to long range capabilities as soon as 2015. The current United States plan - Phase IV of what is known as the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) -- calls for the deployment of a brand new defense system abroad a decade from now. Our survey found 55 percent of Americans instead favor an expedited focus on programs that can defend our country in the near term.
Looking at these numbers and our current budget realities, it is surprising to hear that some in Washington D.C. want to divert funds from a program that would be ready for deployment on the same timelines as these rogue nations, and instead want to focus on a missile concept, known as SM-3 IIB, that would be ready by 2022 at the earliest.
Given the views the American public holds, we arrive back at crux of the problem: the sequester. While Americans are generally polarized on many political issues, such as cutting spending versus increasing revenue, our data show a bipartisan desire that is rare in today's political world. As a majority of Americans believe that cuts to missile defense systems would have a large impact on the safety of our country and with imminent international dangers lurking, cuts to programs such as missile defense need to be carefully assessed for their long-term impact, not just the immediate need to reduce spending.
Both parties need to wake up to the reality that their actions are going against the will of the American people on this topic. Democrats who are fine with allowing large defense cuts need to be cognizant that their supporters strongly favor a robust missile defense system. Republicans who are putting forward sequester plans that they know are dead on arrival are also going against their constituents' desires. This forced dilemma represents a prime example as to why Congress' popularity continues to remain at record low levels.