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Public Wants Deeper Cuts to Defense Budget Than Even the Trigger

Lost in yesterday’s House vote to replace the defense trigger cuts is that the public actually wants to cut the defense budget by even more than what’s contemplated in those cuts.

Ask your average American whether the defense budget should go up or down in 2013, and by how much, and they’ll tell you to cut spending by a whopping 18 percent. Ask your average member of Congress the same question, and no matter which party they’re from, you’ll likely hear that defense spending should barely budge from where it is right now.

“It’s a sizable gap—perhaps even a missile-sized gap,” suggested R. Jeffrey Smith, an editor at the Center for Public Integrity and former Washington Post reporter, unveiling the findings Thursday morning at the Stimson Center. On average, Smith and his co-authors found the public wants $103.5 billion in defense budget cuts, or 18 percent of the current budget; Republicans want $74 billion cut, on average, Democrats want a $124.4 billion cut, and independents want a $112.2 billion reduction. Participants evaluated 87 percent of defense discretionary spending, so their cuts might even be higher if the entire defense budget were covered.

The $74 billion cut, the Republican consensus, is more than the roughly $63 billion cut in the trigger.

This disconnect is not at all surprising. If you asked those same voters, without providing te context and information that the survey organizers did, how big the defense budget is, you probably wouldn’t get numbers as massive as they are in reality. And I assume that the survey participants didn’t include any defense contractors. Nor did the survey participants get offered large sums of money by lobbyists for those defense contractors to further their careers.

In fact, if you look at the totality of what the House did this week, they didn’t just reverse cuts to the defense budget. They actually increased the budget. Even Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who opposes the trigger cuts, got his back up about the budget increases.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta slammed a House panel on Thursday for adding billions of dollars to President Obama’s defense budget, including money for a new East Coast missile defense site that the military says is unnecessary.

Just hours after the House Armed Services Committee approved its $642 billion spending blueprint, Panetta and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the panel’s additions ignored the careful strategic review that was the basis for the 2013 budget proposal. They warned that if the Pentagon is prevented from retiring aging ships and aircraft or reducing the size of the force, it might have to cut training or equipment.

“If members try to restore their favorite programs without regard to an overall strategy, the cuts will have to come from areas that could impact overall readiness.” Panetta told reporters. “There is no free lunch here. Every dollar that is added will have to be offset by cuts in national security.”

Panetta is fearmongering, of course. Reducing spending on the military so it doesn’t equal what the rest of the world spends combined but instead slightly less than what the rest of the world spends combined will not really harm national security. But the fact that the Secretary of Defense is more parsimonious about the defense budget than Congress should tell you something. And neither Panetta nor the appropriators are in step with the public mood.

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David Dayen

David Dayen