(Reuters/Gary Cameron)

“By the way, it isn’t me cutting the budget. It’s the Congress’s decision on sequestration. So it isn’t secretary of defense or the president doing this, and I think we should clear that up a little bit here, too. Where are we making decisions and how do we make them, that’s a responsibility I have. But also the physical constraints that are being placed on the Pentagon to make very tough choices here are very significant.”

— Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” March 2, 2014

The poor sequester is such an orphan. No one really likes to claim parentage, least of all the Obama administration. So there was Defense Secretary Hagel, defending the 2015 military budget while blaming Congress for the sequester.

Time for a refresher course!

The Facts

In 2011, Democrats and Republicans had a bitter showdown on whether to raise the ceiling on the national debt. The impasse 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.”

So, where did this idea come from?

As documented in detail in Bob Woodward’s “The Price of Politics,” it all started with the Obama White House.

One aide, Gene Sperling, described it as a “trigger” to lock in spending cuts. Then White House chief of staff (and now Treasury secretary) Jack Lew pitched the idea to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), arguing that “the beauty of a sequester [is] it’s so ridiculous that no one ever wants it to happen.” Lew then used language from 1985 Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-reduction law — which he knew well from his days as an aide to then-House Speaker Tip O’Neill  from 1979 to 1987 — as the model for the trigger.

Woodward’s detailed account of meetings during the crisis, clearly based on interviews with key participants and contemporaneous notes, make it clear that sequestration was a proposal advanced and promoted by the White House.

Meanwhile, of course, Obama signed the Budget Control Act into law in 2011. He then in 2013 signed a bill, achieved after a bipartisan effort led by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), that removed some of the sting of the sequester by identifying specific reductions in spending, giving a bit of a boost to the Defense Department. The proposed 2015 budget aims to exceed the sequester caps a bit more.

Asked for comment, a Defense Department official made the following points:

First, Pentagon leadership has consistently been against sequestration, even before Secretary Hagel’s tenure. There is a long public record of statements to that effect.

Second, our budget submission for FY-15 and the out years is above sequestration level, so we clearly aren’t accepting it now, either.

Third, the Bipartisan Budget Act set defense spending at $496 billion, much less than we proposed last year. This was the Murray-Ryan plan, not a number that Secretary Hagel or the White House devised.

The Pinocchio Test

We had earlier given President Obama Four Pinocchios for flatly stating that the sequester stemmed from a congressional proposal, but that was in part because he was intimately involved in the negotiations and should have known better. Hagel was not in Congress during this period, but he goes too far when tries to absolve Obama of any blame for the sequester. It takes both the executive branch and the legislative branch to create a law.

Hagel would have been on stronger ground if he had simply focused on the Defense Department’s longstanding opposition to sequestration.

Two Pinocchios

 


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