by Justin Elliott, ProPublica.
Anxiety is rising in Washington about the big cuts to military spending slated to go into effect in January unless Congress takes action.
Republicans, defense industry executives, and some Democrats are arguing hard against the automatic cuts, which were the result of last summer’s deal to raise the debt ceiling and would also cut nondefense spending equally. Multiple members of Congress have warned that slashing defense spending by $600 billion would devastate the military, with Sen. Lindsey Graham this month predicting the cuts would deal “a death blow to our ability to defend ourselves.”
There’s just one problem: The number they cite is wrong.
The law triggering the cuts does not slash the military budget by $600 billion. That figure — which has also been widely cited in the media — overstates the amount of military cuts by more than $100 billion.
Signed by President Obama last August after the debt ceiling drama, the law actually requires $492 billion in military budget cuts. (The cuts are slated to take place over nine years.)
The oft-repeated higher figure of $600 billion is actually the total in projected deficit reduction that the government would get by cutting $492 billion from the military. The extra $108 billion in projected savings would come via interest payments the government wouldn’t have to make. Since the government would be spending less, it could borrow less and thus save on interest.
“It is downright misleading to say that sequestration will cut defense by $600 billion,” said David Berteau, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former Defense Department official. (Sequestration is the term often used in Washington to refer to the cuts.)
“This entire exercise against sequestration is tainted by the intense desire of several parties — from the members of Congress who voted for the bill to the Pentagon that wants to avoid the cuts — to make sequestration seem untenable,” Berteau added.
Both a Congressional Budget Office report and the head of the Office of Management and Budget concur that the proper figure for the cuts is $492 billion, or about $55 billion annually over nine years.
In arguing against the cuts, the $600 billion figure has been cited recently by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., House Aerospace Caucus Co-Chair Rep. Pete Olson, R-Texas, and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney cited the figure last year, and it is also included in a July press release on his website.