Listening to all the campaign trail chatter of increasing defense spending, one could conclude that deficit reduction has fallen off the political radar. President Barack Obama's proposed budget for FY2017 also calls for increasing national defense spending (including nuclear weapons) to $537 billion. The Republican leadership is eyeballing at least that much, while numerous members of Congress are pushing for even more.
But, it this what the voters want? According to the results of a new 'Citizen Cabinet' survey on the defense spending, the answer is a clear "no," with majorities even calling for trimming defense.
The innovative survey presented respondents with strongly stated arguments in favor of spending and for reductions and then gave them the opportunity to make up their own defense budget. More than half brought it down to $497 billion or less. Majorities also cut the F-35 fighter program, and proposed reducing the number of aircraft carriers in the fleet.
The survey was conducted by the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland, and released by the nonpartisan organization, Voice Of the People. A representative panel of more than 7,000 registered voters was recruited from Nielsen Scarborough's larger probability-based panel.
Respondents went through a unique online process called a 'policymaking simulation' developed with defense experts and vetted in advance with key Republican and Democratic congressional staffers, for accuracy and balance.
They were given a briefing on the current national defense budget and were presented historical trends. They assessed strongly-asserted arguments in favor of spending and in favor of cutting overall, and for the seven major areas of defense spending. Ultimately, they were asked to modify the amounts budgeted for each area of defense spending, and while doing so, received continual feedback on their totals.
Sixty-one percent made net cuts. Relative to the 2015 national defense spending level (including nuclear weapons) of $509 billion they were presented, the majority cut $12 billion. This included cutting ground forces by $4 billion (or 3 percent), nuclear weapons by $3 billion (13 percent), air power by $2 billion (1.5 percent), naval forces by $2 billion and missile defense by $1 billion (13 percent). Special operations and the Marines were left untouched. No areas were increased.
A majority of Democrats cut $36 billion; independents $20 billion; while there was not majority support for either increases or decreases among Republicans. A majority of African American respondents cut the budget $34 billion; Hispanics $20 billion.
Cutting the F-35 program - saving $6 billion in one year and $97 billion over the next 21 years - was favored by 54 percent. Six-in-ten approved of reducing the numbers of aircraft carriers from 11 to 10, a savings of $7 billion over the next ten years.
Some programs fared better. The controversial proposal for a new long-range stealth bomber called Next Generation to replace the B-2 bomber (which would cost $32 billion over the next ten years) was approved by 55 percent. Cutting back the number of planned nuclear submarines from 12 to 8 was rejected by 54 percent of respondents.
If you would like to weigh in America's defense spending, here's your chance: The same defense budget simulation our representative panels completed is now posted online here. In the end, you can forward your recommendations to your representatives in Congress.
It's an understatement to say Americans are expressing a lot of dissatisfaction with government. Polls indicate voters from both ends of the spectrum are voicing a mutual concern: our representatives in Washington are not listening to their constituents, but rather the special interests that write big checks and fill campaign coffers.
This survey is one more piece of evidence that voters' concern that their leaders are out of step with the people is warranted.
Steven Kull is the director of the University of Maryland's Program for Public Consultation and president of Voice Of the People, a nonpartisan organization that uses innovative methods and technology to help give the American people a more effective voice in government.