One idea behind a representative government is to approximate what the public as a whole would do if it had the time to sit down and consider each matter itself. Of course the entire U.S. public does not have that time. But when a random sample of the public is asked to take the time on one topic, its results typically line up with opinion polls, not to mention basic human decency, far more closely than does the work of the Congress or the White House.
An example is found in the matter of the fiscal year 2018 federal budget. This can be a tricky topic to poll the public on, principally because most of the public has little idea what the budget looks like, and most discussions of the budget only make matters worse. Passionate pleas not to cut this or that valuable program leave people imagining that such programs make up a significant part of the budget, and that the White House proposal would shrink the government by cutting such programs.
In fact, only one item makes up a significant part of the discretionary budget — over half of it, in fact — and President Donald Trump’s proposal is for the same size government, but with funding moved out of virtually everywhere else and into this one budget item: the military. Trump’s budget proposal would push military spending up to above 60% of discretionary spending (not counting secret budgets, of course).
What would be the point of asking for budget recommendations from people who believe that military spending is 10% and foreign aid 20% of the budget? How responsible would that be? If the public were to decree that we must “increase” military spending to 15% of the budget, how would we implement that policy?
A democratic solution to this conundrum, short of an improved communications system, has been found by the staff of the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland. They simply show people the current 2017 budget, so that they know what it is, and ask them how to improve it. The results would only shock an elected “representative.”
“By far the biggest gap,” the researchers report, “is for … military spending. Overall the Trump administration favors a $53.4 billion increase while the public favors a $41 billion cut – a $94.4 billion gap.” And, of course, Trump favors cuts to pay for his militarism that the public opposes: on education, public housing, the State Department, medical research, the environment, and mass transit.
I’m with the public on this and every other topic I know of. A sample of informed public opinion should override any veto, filibuster, house resolution, or executive order as far as I’m concerned. We’d all be better off.
Dumping $700 billion into a never-audited department named “defense,” against the will of the public, is certainly not defensive of democracy. Neither is it defensive of anything else. Only 20 countries reach $10 billion in annual military spending, nine of them NATO members, 8 more U.S. allies, and 3 potential allies if not treated with such hostility. One of them, Russia, has cut its military in the past 3 years from $70 billion to $48 billion. Somehow that’s the government considered so terrifying in Washington, D.C., that all you’d have to do to stop Trump’s budget would be to claim 1,000 times on television that a Russian wrote it.
That’s going to be my Plan B. First let’s try this. I suggest we cut the President some slack. Let him go golfing more often. The public can handle the government just fine.