Understanding the battle over the looming defense cuts
“I voted for a mechanism”
— GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan
The Sunday public affairs shows sometimes leave ordinary Americans lost in a blizzard of Washington gobbledygook, especially when it comes to the federal budget. A lengthy exchange between Norah O’Donnell and GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan on CBS’s “Face The Nation” on Sunday is a good example of that, in which two people are simply talking past each other.
We are fairly convinced that 99.99 percent of the people watching this exchange had little clue what they were arguing about. In an effort to promote understanding, we will annotate it. Both Democrats and Republicans have their own narratives of what happened in the debt ceiling debate, so we will not try to adjudicate that dispute.
O'DONNELL: Let's talk about some of the cuts that have been agreed to. Mitt Romney said in an interview on NBC that Republicans were wrong to agree to a deal last summer that included automatic cuts to defense spending in exchange for this agreement to raise the debt ceiling. He said it was big mistake by Republicans.
He's talking about you because you voted for those cuts, correct?
That’s correct; Ryan voted for the agreement. Romney blasted the deal as soon as it was made, saying it “opens the door to higher taxes and puts defense cuts on the table.” Indeed, on NBC’s “Meet The Press” on Sunday, Romney in effect criticized his running mate by saying the deal was “a big mistake” by Republican leaders.
In an effort to end the bitter impasse between Democrats and Republicans over raising the debt ceiling, the Budget Control Act of 2011 cut spending by nearly $1 trillion over 10 years by setting new budget caps for “security” and “nonsecurity” discretionary spending.
“Security” spending included not just the Defense Department but also the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Veterans Affairs, foreign aid spending, intelligence and other areas. The goal was to allow some flexibility to avoid being locked into a specific number for defense spending.
The law also tasked a “supercommittee” with finding ways to reduce the deficit by an additional $1.2 trillion over 10 years. If the committee failed — which it did — then automatic cuts totaling $1.2 trillion also would be ordered in “security” and “nonsecurity” spending.
RYAN: I did, you know why I voted for it? Because I was working to find common ground with Democrats to get a down payment on deficit reduction.
I worked with President Obama to find common ground to get a down payment on deficit reduction. It wasn't a big down payment but it was a step in the right direction.
Here's the issue, Bob Woodward just wrote this in his book, the devastating defense cuts that are now coming due were insisted upon by the Obama administration so that they would not have to face another debt ceiling increase before the election.
Woodward’s book, “The Price of Politics,” is being released Tuesday, but the negotiations have been well chronicled already. The two sides were haggling over an enforcement trigger that would cause pain on both sides. As The Washington Post previously reported, originally the Obama administration wanted the trigger to hinge on repeal of Bush tax cuts on the wealthy. Republicans responded by saying the trigger should be balanced by repeal of the individual mandate in Obama’s health-care law.
Ultimately, that was too much for both sides, so they settled on security spending (pain for Republicans) balanced by non-security spending (pain for Democrats). It is a bit of stretch to lay all of the blame on Democrats for the defense cuts in the sequester, because it was a bipartisan deal designed to spread the pain around. (Presumably that’s why Romney criticized it when it was announced.)
O'DONNELL: But congressman, that's....
RYAN: That's putting politics out of national security.
More to the point, Norah, I authored the bill, brought it to the floor, and passed it to prevent the president's irresponsible, devastating defense cuts from occurring by cutting wasteful Washington spending in other areas of government to replace these defense cuts.
Ryan here is referring a bill he crafted that passed the House in May on a party-line vote, with not a single Democrat voting for it. The bill would have halted the automatic cuts in defense spending for one year, while cutting in other areas. The Democratic-controlled Senate did not accept the bill. Democrats, by contrast, have proposed ending Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy as a way to meet the deficit targets in the Budget Control Act, though no vote has been taken on a sequestration replacement plan. (We have also pointed out that the administration’s claims of $4 trillion in deficit reduction over 10 years is based largely on fishy accounting.)
O'DONNELL: Congressman, these defense cuts are part of the Budget Control Act. You voted for the Budget Control Act. In fact I went and looked, you put out a statement at the time it was passed and you called it a victory, and you called it a positive step forward.
So, you voted for defense cuts. And now you're criticizing the president for those same defense cuts that you voted for and called a victory.
Here’s the statement Ryan made, during a news conference with House leaders on the day of the House vote. He was asked what sort of argument was he making to reluctant Republican members. He responded:
This is the kind of thing we've been looking for, for years. There are some who have just various concerns, whether it didn't go far enough, or whether defense was too high. I think at the end of the day this bill is going to prevail, and it's going to prevail with a majority of Republicans.
This gets us two-thirds of the cuts in discretionary spending we are looking for in our budget. Did we get 100 percent of the discretionary cuts we were looking for? No, we got two-thirds. That's better than zero. I'll take two-thirds in my direction than anything else. And we're going in our direction.
That's why I think most Republicans will support this.
It is a rah-rah statement designed to win votes, but does not indicate that he called the defense cuts a victory.
UPDATE: CBS News points out the O’Donnell was referring to this statement issued after the measure passed. In the opening line, Ryan refers to the law itself as a victory: “The Budget Control Act represents a victory for those committed to controlling government spending and growing our economy.”
RYAN: No, no, I have to correct you on this, Norah. I voted for a mechanism that says a sequester will occur if we don't cut $1.2 trillion spending in government. We offered $1.2 trillion in various — the super committee offered it. We passed in the House a bill to prevent those devastating defense cuts by cutting spending elsewhere. The Senate's done nothing. President Obama's done nothing.
I wrote another bill, passed it, got signed into law, Democrats supported us, President Obama. If he is not going to help us with a plan to prevent those defense cuts by substituting them from elsewhere, what's his plan for the sequester? He's ignoring the law. He was supposed to give these to us yesterday.
So the problem, Norah, is we've led. We wanted to have a bipartisan agreement. We got that. And the president hasn't fulfilled his end of the bipartisan agreement.
The goal was never that these defense cuts actually occur, the goal is that we get to work and cut spending so that we prevent those defense cuts. We've done that. The president hasn't.
Here Ryan really starts venturing into the Washington weeds — “I voted for a mechanism.” He comes close to the edge of echoing Sen. John Kerry’s much-ridiculed statement in the 2004 campaign, that he voted for the $87 billion before he voted against it.
Ryan is also framing the answer in a way that makes his side look better. The bill called for $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction, not $1.2 trillion in spending cuts. It’s also not fair to say the other side has “done nothing.” In fact Democrats have proposed other options, such as boosting taxes on those earning more than $250,000 a year as a way to reach the $1.2 trillion goal.
The White House says the administration will detail its plans for the sequester by the end of the week, which is past the deadline set in the law.
O'DONNELL: Congressman, it's my understanding that as part of the Budget Control Act there was not just the sequestration, the defense sequestration, but there is also $1 trillion in immediate spending cuts, which included the defense cuts, almost $400 billion that were proposed by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mr. Dempsey, as well as Secretary Panetta. And you also voted for those.
And now you're saying that you didn't vote for them?
RYAN: We can get into this nomenclature. I voted for the Budget Control Act, but the Obama administration proposed $478 billion in defense cuts. We don't agree with that. Our budget rejected that. And then on top of that is another $500 billion in defense cuts.
Ryan is correct here that the defense cuts were proposed by the administration, within the framework of “security” spending. He is also right that the additional $500 billion in defense cuts is the result of the failure of the two sides to reach a budget agreement on achieving $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction.
It is also worth noting that Ryan, about a week after the Budget Control Act was approved, co-signed a letter expressing concern about reports that the administration was contemplating reducing defense spending “somewhere between $330 billion and $420 billion over the next 10 years.” The administration actually requested $487 billion over 10 years. (Ryan apparently reversed two digits when he said “$478 billion.”)
O'DONNELL: Right, it's a trillion in defense spending. And you voted for it.
RYAN: No, Norah, I voted for the Budget Control Act.
O'DONNELL: That included defense spending.
RYAN: Norah, you're mistaken.
I do not support the Obama budget. I do not support the Obama $478 billion in cuts. So, number one, that's half of the trillion we don't support. Our budget reflected that.
Number two, we passed legislation to reflect what we want as part of the Budget Control Act, which is to cut spending in other areas of government instead of the Pentagon, that bill is sitting in the Senate right now.
President Obama has done nothing to support it, to oppose it. He hasn't even shown us how he's going to implement this sequester. And if you go back and read the tape. If you go back and read Bob Woodward's book, the reason the defense cuts are in the sequester as they are, was the insistence of the Obama administration.
The Bottom Line
As this is a tour through the budgetary weeds, we are not going to award Pinocchios here. (Ryan’s referring to $1.2 trillion in spending cuts, instead of $1.2 trillion of deficit reduction, may simply be the consequence of a combative interview.)
Still, this exchange does indicate the poisoned atmosphere of Washington today. The Budget Control Act was intended to force the two sides to make consequential decisions because the consequence of failure to reach a deal would be so horrible.
But instead, it has only accentuated the blame game, with each side having their own narrative in which one team has taken only reasonable steps and their opponents have “done nothing.” Readers should not necessarily believe there is only one side to this story, no matter how complex — or simple — it may sound on television.
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