The Right to Rise super PAC is running an advertisement in South Carolina ahead of the Feb. 20 primary attacking Republican presidential candidate John Kasich's record on defense spending cuts. (Right to Rise)

“Iran. North Korea. ISIS. Threats to America are growing but under Obama, our military is shrinking. So why did John Kasich spend his career supporting massive defense cuts? … Kasich wanted cuts so severe even Bill Clinton said they would harm defense. John Kasich: dangerously wrong on national security.”

ad by Right to Rise USA, pro-Jeb Bush super PAC

This ad has been airing in South Carolina ahead of the Feb. 20 GOP primary there. It shows video clips of Kasich apparently confirming the ad’s arguments. “We’re going to make the Pentagon a triangle. I’m thrilled,” Kasich says in one clip.  Then it cuts to another clip of Kasich saying: “I spent a whole career trying to rein in defense spending.”

But there’s more to dig into here, as the ad misrepresents Kasich’s role in reshaping the federal budget. We took a deeper look.

The Facts

Kasich supported ‘massive defense cuts’

First, some important context: Right to Rise attacks Kasich over budget battles of two decades ago, which was a completely different time. The two amendments the ad refers to are from 1993 and 1994, when Republicans and Democrats sought to rein in Cold War levels of defense spending for what they believed to be right-sizing the defense budget.

It’s worth noting that while this pro-Bush group criticizes defense cuts, efforts to reduce military spending actually began in 1990 under George H.W. Bush, Jeb Bush’s father, as The Fact Checker found in 2011. Indeed, the defense budget was under constant pressure in the 1990s and did not start climbing again until after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks; Kasich left Congress nine months before those terrorist attacks dramatically changed the calculus on the defense budget.

Kasich was elected to the House in the early 1980s under a Democrat-controlled Congress. Democrats remained in the majority until 1995, when Republicans gained control of both chambers for the first time in 40 years. In 1993 and 1994, Kasich supported some of the efforts to reduce the Pentagon’s overhead. But President Clinton consistently rejected efforts to cut federal spending.

In 1993, the Defense Department had highlighted low-priority items that Congress could reallocate to higher-priority needs. Instead, the House Appropriations defense subcommittee allocated another $1.2 billion for the high-priority needs. Then-Rep. Thomas H. Andrews (D-Maine) introduced an amendment to eliminate the $1.2 billion, saying the Pentagon should not have deficit spending privileges without being asked to cut spending from existing programs.

Kasich supported this amendment, which the ad cited for the “massive defense cuts” claim. But let’s keep this figure in context. This was additional spending that had been requested — and the defense budget in 1993 was about $290 billion. So these aren’t “massive cuts,” but more like a rounding error.

But House defense appropriators warned cutting existing programs risked defense capabilities — even though the Defense Department was willing to make cuts in the first place. The amendment failed on a 188-244 vote.

Cuts ‘so severe Bill Clinton said they would harm defense’

Right to Rise cited Kasich’s effort in 1994 to adopt $26 billion in unspecified discretionary spending cuts over five years in the Senate’s fiscal 1995 budget blueprint.

Kasich, then-House Budget Committee ranking member, co-sponsored an amendment with Tim Penny (D-Minn.) proposing to cut spending from domestic programs while protecting defense spending. The Penny-Kasich amendment insisted “that no further cuts be made in defense by agreeing to the highest possible level of funding for defense,” as Clinton had promised in his 1994 State of the Union address.

Still, opponents — including Clinton and the Joint Chiefs of Staff — argued that “additional cuts would almost inevitably result in reductions in defense funds,” and that “there’s no way to keep those cuts from invading defense,” news clips show.

Matt Wall of Right to Rise USA said: “Clinton and others warned that irrespective of the added language, the cuts were so severe that they would inevitably harm defense. In other words, and per the ad, Kasich wanted cuts so severe that even Bill Clinton said they would harm defense.”

The ad cites Clinton’s letter to Kasich and other House members reminding them he “drew the line” in his State of the Union address against cutting defense. Yet that’s the same language that the Penny-Kasich amendment proposed.

The amendment narrowly failed on a 216 to 202 vote. The Clinton White House viewed it as a victory, in part because it protected some of Clinton’s banner domestic programs from spending reductions.

Kasich’s role after 1994

Things changed in 1995. Republicans took control of Congress for the first time in 40 years. Kasich became House Budget Committee chairman and his mentor, Newt Gingrich, became speaker of the House. Together with their allies, they became known as “deficit hawks” who became the key players of writing the 1997 Balanced Budget Act and getting it passed into law. (Gingrich has called on Right to Rise USA to pull the ad.)

With his 1996 reelection campaign looming, Clinton switched course and began moving to the center once Republicans took control. He vowed to find common ground with congressional Republicans.

The day after the November 1994 election, Clinton said: “I will do everything in my power to reach out to the leaders and the members of this new Congress. It must be possible to make it a more effective, more functioning institution. It must be possible for us to give our people a government that is smaller, that is more effective, that reflects both our interests and our values.”

Michael O’Hanlon, defense policy expert at the Brookings Institution who testified before Congress during the defense budget deliberations at the time, told us the main thing Kasich did was “to rein in the GOP after the 1994 Gingrich revolution on the subject of the desire for more defense spending. That’s when he and Gingrich established themselves as ‘cheap hawks.’”

“I think Kasich was thoughtful and responsible on his defense positions, even if one could debate whether defense spending was being cut slightly too much then,” O’Hanlon added. “Of course, it was only half a decade after the Cold War ended — so of course defense spending was going to be ‘historically low.’”

The Pinocchio Test

The ad uses Kasich’s own words that he “spent a whole career trying to rein in defense spending,” and that he was “thrilled” to cut the Pentagon’s budget. Yes, Kasich did work to downsize federal defense spending. But the two specific votes that the ad cites don’t support the message that Kasich was “dangerously wrong” on national security or that he supported cuts that would’ve jeopardized defense operations.

Kasich rejected $1.2 billion in supplementary funding for the Defense Department, as the ad claims. But that was additional spending that House defense appropriators decided to give without making the cuts the Defense Department was willing to accept for low-priority items. Kasich did support an amendment to reduce spending that Clinton claimed would harm defense. But Clinton argued that even though the Penny-Kasich proposal specifically added legislative language to shield defense spending.

The distortion of facts in this ad earns Three Pinocchios. It’s especially dismaying that the pro-Bush group would bash Kasich for trying to make responsible post-Cold War reductions in defense spending advocated by Jeb Bush’s father.

Three Pinocchios

 


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