The public favors cutting defense spending, not adding billions more, new survey finds

Public opinion is again at odds with Washington about how to spend tax revenues, as most support reductions in federal military and homeland security spending

Trump Budget
Copies of President Donald Trump’s first budget are displayed at the Government Printing Office in Washington before dawn on Thursday. The $1.15 trillion spending plan proposes pumping significantly more money into the military and homeland security while sharply cutting foreign aid, medical research, and the arts.

President Trump’s proposed budget for 2018 isn’t following public sentiment, a new survey finds.

The survey, by the University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation (PPC), found that while Trump has proposed a $54 billion boost to federal spending for the military, a majority of Americans prefer a cut of $41 billion. While Trump has proposed a $2.8 billion increase for homeland security, a majority of Americans favor a $2 billion cut.

Altogether, the survey looked at the 10 top areas of spending in Trump’s “Budget Blueprint” and found a gap of $139.6 billion between what the majority of the public would spend and what Trump has proposed.

Steven Kull, PPC’s director, said he was surprised both by the extent of the gap and the fact that Trump’s proposals were at odds with the preferences of both Republicans and Democrats. In general, those who identified themselves as Republicans were more likely to favor cutting some of the spending that Trump has proposed to cut, but on a raft of areas where Trump proposed large reductions, members of his party preferred to cut less.

On military spending, for example, where Trump’s proposal is $94.4 billion away from the majority’s position, a majority of GOP respondents said they wished to keep the so-called “base” or main defense budget at the current level, although they favored cutting $5 billion in spending from a budget for “overseas contingency operations,” specifically in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A majority of Democrats said they favored cutting $76 billion from the base military budget and $15 billion from spending in Afghanistan and Iraq — a $91 billion total cut for defense and a $144.4 billion gap with Trump’s budget. If enacted, Trump’s plan would boost military spending by a total of $54 billion.

The new study is consistent with previous poll results, suggesting that Americans’ budget preferences haven’t shifted that much, even after last year’s rancorous and divisive election. A survey released in March 2016 by Voice of the People, which is affiliated with the University of Maryland and sponsors PPC surveys, found a majority of respondents preferred taking the base defense budget down to about $497 billion from its 2015 level of about $509 billion.

Those results, in turn, were strikingly similar to the conclusions of a 2012 survey by the Center for Public Integrity, PPC, and the Stimson Center, a nonprofit policy study group in Washington, D.C. When respondents were asked in that survey what they would do with Obama’s base defense budget, the majority favored cutting it by at least $65 billion, from $562 billion down to $497 billion.

Asked for comment on the new survey results, a spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget did not immediately reply.

The survey by PPC sampled more than 1800 registered voters online. They were given a rough outline of the federal budget for 2017 and exposed to a short series of statements — which PPC said were vetted for fairness by opposing groups — about the pros and cons of raising or shrinking the deficit, enlarging or shrinking the size of government, and making public as opposed to private capital investments. Then they were offered the chance to change the budget, keeping in mind the total impact of the changes on the deficit.

The numbers it cited as majority preferences were the means of the preferred budget tallies chosen by the respondents, as long as the mean was supported by more than 50 percent. If fewer than that supported the mean, then the survey cited the next closest number supported by the majority.

Trump’s budget for 2018 would take base defense spending to $603 billion. But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, want to spend much more. They have jointly proposed a base defense budget of $640 billion -- an idea even more out of sync with the public than Trump's plan.

None of these figures include about $65 billion in additional military spending planned for “overseas contingency operations” in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

Trump’s budget also would add $1.4 billion in extra funds to produce and maintain America’s nuclear warheads. But a majority of all groups — Republicans, Democrats, and Independents — supported keeping that budget where it is now.

President Trump’s preferences are closer to public sentiments in a few areas besides defense and homeland security. For instance, for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, Trump seeks to cut $10.1 billion from the department’s core budget of $36 billion. A majority of the public would cut less — only $4 billion, although Democrats would cut zero and Republicans would cut the same amount as Trump.

At the Department of Homeland Security, Trump is looking for a 7 percent increase of $2.8 billion while a majority of the public overall and Democrats in particular would cut $2 billion. A majority of Republicans would keep the DHS budget the same as it is now. For Veterans Affairs, Trump wants a $7.9 billion budget increase, but Republicans, Democrats, and the public at large would prefer to keep the budget the same as it is now.

Significant gaps between Trump’s budget proposal and what the public prefers were also found in education, public housing, and medical research. Overall there was a $9 billion gap between Trump’s budget for the Education Department and what the public wants. Like Trump, Republicans would cut $9 billion while Democrats would hike education spending by $3 million. The public overall would not make any changes.

For public housing, Trump would cut $6.2 billion while the public overall and Democrats would not cut at all. Republican voters would cut $3 billion. Trump wants to slash spending on medical research by $5.8 billion. Republicans come close to agreeing with Trump, but the public overall and Democrats would keep the budget where it is.