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Populist headwinds could buffet the defense budget


The Pentagon sends its budget up to Capitol Hill on Monday, where it will be ripped apart, chewed up and extruded in a form that may look nothing like the original.

But this isn't just the resumption of another year's budget cycle. We're in Austerity America now, where DoD's budget growth is precarious and an enormous asteroid hovers over Washington, poised to crush us all unless Congress and the president can somehow swat it away. DoDBuzz readers are very familiar with the competing factions and priorities that will be warring over defense spending this year. But what about the larger picture? What's the sense outside the family?

According to an announcement Friday from the left-leaning New Priorities Network, Americans definitely want less defense spending. As the larger Congress deals with (theoretically) bipartisan pressure to reduce the deficit, most of the public will be willing to sacrifice the Pentagon, it said:

National community, labor, faith, and peace organizations have joined to oppose excessive military spending and work for significant reductions.

The organizations include and the New Priorities Network, which unites U.S. Labor Against the War, Pax Christi, Military Families Speak Out, and dozens of other national and regional groups. In the past week, over 8,000 of their members have contacted Congress to urge deep cuts in the Pentagon budget and increased funding for domestic jobs and services. Thanks to their efforts, the US Conference of Mayors and numerous city councils have passed “bring our war dollars home” resolutions and pursued other strategies to tell federal elected officials: cut military spending and fund our communities.

The majority of the public wants military spending reduced. Initial cuts are now mandated by law.  The coalition believes that much larger cuts would make us safer, create jobs, protect the natural environment, expand civil liberties, and save lives. Shifting $300 billion from the military to education would produce a net gain of 5.25 million jobs.  The President's FY 2013 budget proposal falls short of these goals, as do proposals from Republicans in Congress to undo even the cuts already required by law.

The statement went on to quantify what it called the plurality of support for less defense spending:
Cutting the military is a majority position. On January 3, 2011, Americans expressed their first choice of action. While 3 percent chose to cut Social Security and 4 percent to cut Medicare, 20 percent said cut the military, and 61 percent said tax the rich. On January 14, 2011, 52 percent said they would approve of cutting the military. Another poll, conducted January 15-19, 2011, found 55 percent choosing to cut the military as their first choice (taxing the rich was not offered), while 21 percent said cut Medicare and 13 percent said cut Social Security.

In April, the Washington Post - ABC News found that 72 percent of Americans want to raise taxes on people with incomes over $250,000, while 42 percent say cut the military, 30 percent are willing to cut Medicaid, and 21 percent Medicare. Even Gallup says that 42 percent want to cut Homeland Security and 42 percent want to cut the military, while cutting Medicare and Social Security are at 38 percent and 34 percent. According to Gallup, 22 percent say the United States spends too little on the military, but 39 percent say it spends too much. In fact, only 25 percent of U.S. voters believe the United States should always spend at least three times as much on the military as any other nation. In reality, the United States spends about seven times the closest competitor, a status that must have the support of significantly fewer than 25 percent of Americans. But fewer than that many Americans are aware of it. When shown what the federal budget is and given the opportunity to change it, Americans significantly cut the military.

Maybe -- but at very least, it's a theme we seem to keep seeing these days. And we've talked before about how President Obama's political calculus on potential defense spending reductions could be a mirror image of conventional wisdom: He could wager that more Americans in key states will care about his stance on the deficit than would oppose defense cuts that might put them out of work. Seems like a dangerous game, but these are strange times.

If your livelihood depends on the military-industrial-congressional complex, the picture might not be as bleak as New Priorities makes it sound. First, "community, labor, faith, and peace organizations" seem to get together all the time, including in the occuparian movement, and yet struggle to actually accomplish anything. Second, the same gridlock that could make it so difficult for Congress to prevent "sequestration" -- or do anything else -- also may blunt whatever anti-defense effort could materialize.

Still: Enough people, angry enough about a certain issue, can still make things happen even in molasses Washington. A national backlash prompted the Obama administration to "accommodate" religious groups this week upset over a health care mandate. If New Priorities or its allies can get up enough steam this year and show Congress they've got the kind of support their poll numbers indicate, it's possible it could change the budget game yet again.

What do you think?

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