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Survey: Voters OK With Defense Cuts
By Sandra I. Erwin

The Pentagon and defense industry should be thankful that politicians don’t make military-spending decisions based on public opinion.

A survey unveiled this week by three non-profit organizations challenges the conventional wisdom on how Americans feel about military spending and whether defense budget cuts are needed to help tackle the nation’s debt.

Respondents said they would support slashing the Pentagon’s 2012 budget of $562 billion budget by up to $127 billion. The data gleaned from the survey suggests that the public is comfortable with a leaner, but well-equipped military.

Unlike the standard yea-or-nay polls that simply ask Americans whether they favor cutting defense, increasing it, or keeping it the same, a survey conducted by the Program for Public Consultation, Stimson and the Center for Public Integrity departed from the norm and provided 665 respondents with contextual information to help inform their answers.

Armed with detailed information about federal budget trends, military spending, defense strategy and weapon procurement planning documents — data not easily available to most Americans — most of the survey respondents supported cuts to various portions of the U.S. military budget.

They supported on average an 18 percent cut to defense spending, with Republicans cutting 12 percent and Democrats 22 percent, according to the final survey report, titled, “Consulting the American People on National Defense Spending.”

“People want to cut more spending than their leaders do,” said R. Jeffrey Smith, managing editor for national security at the Center for Public Integrity.

The release of the survey May 10 took place only hours before the House of Representatives voted to cut social programs and shield the Defense Department from automatic budget cuts that Congress approved last year as part of a deal to increase the nation’s debt limit.

The survey report noted that as more contextual information is given to respondents, their support for budget cuts is likely to rise. “If they are asked to choose between defense and other programs, defense is consistently the most popular program to cut and is cut by majorities,” the report said.

One nugget in the survey that might surprise the defense industry and its supporters on Capitol Hill is that the jobs argument doesn’t sell as well as one might expect. Over the past year, arms manufactures have teamed with industry associations and labor unions to mount a lobbying campaign focused on the millions of jobs that are generated by military spending. Even Defense Secretary Leon Panetta joined the cause when he warned Congress that a trillion-dollar cut to the Pentagon’s budget over 10 years would increase the U.S. unemployment rate by 1 percent.

But playing the jobs card does not necessarily win favor, according to the PPC survey. Respondents were asked if the defense budget should be spared from cuts because it would result in people losing their jobs if factories and military bases were shut down.

They also were asked to consider the impact of cuts on U.S. industrial strength, as some manufacturing capabilities, once axed, might not be easy to rebuild.
Only 54 percent of respondents found this argument convincing (59 percent of Republicans and 50 percent of Democrats).

By far people are more concerned with wasteful spending and with reducing the federal deficit than they are about preserving jobs, the survey reveals. More than 80 percent agreed that “there is a lot of waste in the national defense budget, members of Congress often approve unnecessary spending for their districts or keep unneeded bases open, just to benefit their own supporters.”

The majority also agreed that the military branches “buy duplicate of both weapons and services, and do a poor job of tracking where the money goes.”

Whereas the loud, partisan debate in Washington has been highly polarized by extreme views, most survey respondents believe that there is a middle ground — room to reduce the defense budget without affecting U.S. security.

The reaction to the jobs question might astound politicians and defense industry lobbyists, but it is consistent with past surveys, said Steven Kull, director of the Program for Public Consultation. “Pumping money into the military to preserve jobs is an argument that never does well,” he said. “People have a sense intuitively that this is not an efficient way to increase jobs.”

The organizers of the survey insist that the methodology they followed makes this a credible snapshot of America’s views on defense spending, even if it only involved 665 citizens who were randomly selected to represent the national population. The conclusions are statistically reliable to within 5 percent, according to the Program on Public Consultation.

Although the survey provides unusual insight into the public’s views on defense, it is doubtful that it will have an impact on policy making or budget votes on Capitol Hill. There is little incentive for elected officials to act on these findings, as national security issues are not among voters’ top concerns. Most by far worry about the economy and health care.

The role of money in politics also plays in favor of increasing, rather than decreasing defense budgets,

“There’s a lot of money swirling around” in the form of big campaign contributions by defense industry and other groups that benefit from military spending, said Smith.

Also, the Pentagon’s outsize influence in Washington makes it harder for Congress to challenge its budget, said Matthew Leatherman, a defense and foreign affairs analyst at Stimson. “The organization that builds the budget also dominates the budget conversation.”

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