Surveys Say Cut Defense, Not Domestic Programs
Policy + Politics

Surveys Say Cut Defense, Not Domestic Programs

iStockphoto/The Fiscal Times

House Republicans later today will pass legislation that slashes billions of dollars from domestic programs like food stamps and health care to free up money for defense. The goal, driven by the Republican party-wide vow to never raise taxes, is to avoid the mandatory cuts in military spending that are slated for early next year as part of sequestration.

The bloated defense budget would be cut $454 billion over ten years on top of the $487 billion in cuts included in the 2011 debt ceiling deal.  Last August, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said they would have devastating effects on our national defense. Cuts to domestic spending are no less draconian since they, too are added to existing program cuts. $417 billion in cuts go deep and wide at a time of high unemployment, with Medicare, education, and a slew of poverty programs targeted. 

Since the GOP plan is given no chance of passage in the Democratically-controlled Senate, the Republican move raises an interesting question. Do Speaker John Boehner, R-Oh., and Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, R-Mich., think shifting money from domestic programs to the military is what the public wants at this moment in the nation’s history?

The “no new taxes” part of the Republican Party platform, when isolated from other issues, remains popular with voters. But the latest opinion surveys suggest the broad public is ready for a shift in spending priorities after a decade of war and fast-rising military spending, which more than doubled in the past decade.

RELATED: Pentagon Should Plan Alternative to Sequestration

The New York Times/CBS poll taken in early April asked voters if they preferred “lower taxes on business and individuals by cutting spending on some government programs” or “spending more on education and infrastructure while raising taxes on the wealthy.” Survey respondents preferred the latter approach by a 56-37 margin.

A Gallup poll published last October found that the public backed cutting defense spending by a 54-46 margin. Opposition to President Obama’s signature health care reform bill, by contrast, received backing from a slightly lower 53 percent.

Of course, cutting defense doesn’t necessarily translate into support for all government programs. The same Gallup poll found a staggering 87 percent of people backed lower overall government spending, even as the very same respondents backed higher spending on education (81 percent) and stricter environmental enforcement (75 percent).

The Republican bill was crafted to target high-profile and sometimes controversial programs that many voters believe are being abused. The plan would immediately cut $5.6 billion from the Agriculture Department’s food stamp program and $33.6 billion over the next decade, according to a Congressional Budget Office analysis. Democrats on the Budget committee charged the bill would lower benefits for the 47 million people in the program, 20 million of whom are children, while throwing about 2 million off the rolls. Hart Research Associates took an in-depth look at public attitudes toward food aid in January. Seventy-seven percent of the 1,013 adults surveyed said cutting food stamps was the wrong way to reduce spending with only 15 percent backing such cuts.

Though the survey was conducted for the Food Research and Action Center, an advocacy group that supports the program, the survey respondents were 35 percent conservative, 33 percent moderate and 26 percent liberal, comparable to what is found in most public opinion surveys. Cutting food stamps was considered “the wrong way to reduce spending” by 92 percent of Democrats, 74 percent of independents and 63 percent of Republicans in the survey.

In the health care arena, the legislation would cut aid to the states to set up health care exchanges to implement reform ($13.5 billion over the next decade) and money earmarked for prevention and public health ($11.9 billion). While the reform bill itself is unpopular, its efforts to promote wellness, which could save the health care system money in the long run, are not.

While few have polled on the issue recently, a 2009 survey by Quinlan Rosner Research and Public Opinion Strategies for Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found 71 percent of Americans favored an increase in disease prevention funding. It was one of the most popular elements of the health care reform bill then under consideration.

More than two-thirds of respondents thought prevention would save money. When told prevention would cost $34 billion out of the $900 billion in proposed new spending in the law, 60 percent said they still backed it.

Earlier this week, Ryan was asked by reporters about a letter from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that said the House Republican plan failed a “basic moral test.” “As you pursue responsible deficit reduction, the Catholic bishops join other faith leaders and people of good will urging you to protect the lives and dignity of poor and vulnerable families,” wrote Rev. Stephen Blaire, who leads the Conference’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

Ryan said compassion should be measured by “outcomes,” not “inputs.” Republican pollster Scott Rasmussen’s latest survey showed just 8 percent thought Congress was doing a good job compared to 64 percent who thought its job performance was “poor.”