Opposing sequestration, Obama and Romney preserve the status quo

Obama and Romney debate

Earlier today, I noted that President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney essentially agreed that thousands of American soldiers should’ve been left in Iraq after the 2011 troop withdrawal deadline. Romney was at least honest about supporting this, Obama wasn’t.

Another point during the debate where the two seemed to agree was on the looming $1+ trillion in sequestration cuts as part of last year’s debt deal. Romney was critical of sequestration because roughly half of the cuts will hit defense, which he and most Republicans believe is a threat to America’s military strength.

Obama responded:

[T]he sequester is not something that I proposed. It’s something that Congress has proposed. It will not happen. The budget that we’re talking about is not reducing our military spending. It’s maintaining it.

Well, that’s just not true. The Daily Caller notes that Bob Woodward’s new book explains that the sequestration was proposed by officials in the White House to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid during the debt ceiling fight:

That directly contradicts a 2012 book from investigative journalist Bob Woodward — the Washington Post editor who, with Carl Bernstein, took down President Richard Nixon over the 1970s-era Watergate scandal.

Then-OMB Director Jack Lew, now the White House chief of staff, and White House Legislative Affairs Director Rob Nabors pitched the idea to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Woodward writes,” according to a Sept. 7 story appearing on the Politico website.

“Under the deal, which Republicans accepted after several rounds of bargaining, the federal debt ceiling was raised — staving off a potential financial crisis.”

Sequestration arises from the Budget Control Act that the debt-reduction super committee passed last year. The super committee’s deficit reduction plan, which Obama signed into law, put in place a trigger that will automatically make steep cuts to the Department of Defense budget — about $110 billion — on Jan. 2 if no alternative plan is adopted to continue financing the federal government moving forward.

And it’s worth noting that Obama made some news during the debate by saying that sequestration “will not happen.” And with that, he no doubt upset some of rank-and-file Democrats who have been insistent about cutting defense spending.

But the underlying point of Romney, and now, Obama’s opposition to sequestration is really based on a false premise. As Peter Suderman explains over at Reason, these aren’t spending cuts, when it all comes down to it:

Here’s GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s basic position: The federal government spends way too much money, and is on a path to fiscal ruin. So obviously we can’t have defense cuts.

Here’s President Obama’s basic position: The United States spends an absolutely absurd amount of money on defense, and it prevents us from spending here at home. So obviously we can’t have defense cuts.

The best part? The cuts they’re worried about aren’t even cuts at all. The military cuts that both of the candidates are focused on are part of “sequestration” — the spending reductions called for as a result of last year’s deal to raise the federal debt limit.

Suderman points to this chart from Veronique de Rugy, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center, which shows that defense spending will still grow, despite the “sky is falling” claims from Romney, the Heritage Foundation, and others one the right:

Yesterday, The Weekly Standard posted a chart showing that, under President Obama’s budget, interest payments on the national debt would exceed defense spending by FY 2022. While this is indeed concerning, there is no credibility on spending from conservatives until they’re willing to put defense on the table.

As I’ve noted before, Romney’s plan to cut 5% of non-defense discretionary spending — roughly 20% of total outlays — is not a serious plan to get bring the United States back on a sustainable fiscal path. Romney doesn’t deal with entitlements and defense spending, which are the two largest parts of the budget, with the former representing a clearer long-term threat. Until he offers a real budget proposal with real ideas for reform, it’s hard to take Romney seriously.

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