“$500 Billion In Cuts . . . $500 Billion In Proposed Cuts. Fewer Troops. Fewer Planes. Fewer Ships. 136,000 Fewer Jobs In Virginia.”
— messages in a new Romney campaign Web video
GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney has repeatedly hammered President Obama for cutting military spending — in last week’s debate, in a new Web video and in mailers sent to residents in vote-rich Virginia. “Over 130,000 Virginia jobs and American’s national security are on the line,” the glossy pamphlet says. “Barack Obama’s agenda ignores Virginia’s families and security.”
The mailer even quotes Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta as decrying the impact of the cuts. That’s actually a clue that something more complex is going on here — why would Panetta be complaining about his boss’s policies?
This is a classic Washington food fight. But any fair reading of the facts would show the blame game is much more complex than Romney’s rhetoric.
In 2011, Democrats and Republicans had a bitter showdown on whether to raise the ceiling on the national debt. The impasse was ended with bipartisan passage of the Budget Control Act of 2011, which 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. This process is known as “sequestration.”
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), now Romney’s running mate, was one of the many Republicans who voted for the agreement. In fact, he was one of its biggest cheerleaders.
“The Budget Control Act represents a victory for those committed to controlling government spending and growing our economy,” he said in a statement issued after the measure passed.
Romney, for his part, blasted the deal as soon as it was made, saying it “opens the door to higher taxes and puts defense cuts on the table.” Romney has also since said that Republican leaders made a mistake in agreeing to this deal.
So why blame Obama for the defense cuts? The Romney campaign points to passages in Bob Woodward’s new book, “The Price of Politics,” and Glenn Thrush’s e-book, “Obama’s Last Stand,” as showing that Obama was the first to come up with the idea of putting defense cuts on the table. The accounts show that Obama wanted to have leverage to force the Republicans to accept tax hikes for the wealthy.
In other words, it was part of a negotiation. The two sides were haggling over an enforcement trigger that would cause pain on both sides. As The Washington Post previously reported, the Obama administration originally 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 nonsecurity spending (pain for Democrats). The inside accounts of sausage-making are interesting, but not surprising. Ultimately, the final deal was good enough for top Republicans, including Romney’s running mate.
Since then, both sides have played political games over the defense cuts.
Earlier this year, Ryan crafted a bill that would have halted the automatic cuts in defense spending for one year while cutting in other areas. It passed the House in May on a party-line vote, with not a single Democrat voting for it. The Democratic-controlled Senate did not accept the bill — and has not done much else, either, to deal with the problem. Democrats 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 ever been taken on a sequestration replacement plan.
The Romney ad and pamphlet cite a study by Stephen S. Fuller of George Mason University as showing how “Obama’s cuts” would kill more than 130,000 jobs in Virginia. But the study never mentions Obama, and Fuller says both sides are responsible for the scenario he envisages.
“The cuts that I have calculated are a result of sequestration, the Budget Control Act of 2011,” Fuller said in an e-mail. “These were in effect approved by all of the Congressmen and Senators voting for the Act and the president as he signed it. There is lots of blame to go around since the Republicans have their finger prints on this Act, too.”
The Pinocchio Test
Romney may have always opposed this deal, but it is wrong to lay all of the blame on Obama for the defense cuts in the sequester; the Budget Control Act was a bipartisan deal designed to spread the pain around.
Republicans may now be experiencing buyer’s remorse, but that’s no excuse for claiming that these are all Obama’s defense cuts — especially since the study cited in the ad makes no such claim.
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