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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Hagel Shifts Sequester Blame to Congress

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel blames Congress — and absolves President Obama — for the automatic budget cuts known as the sequester. But Obama supported and signed the bill that stipulated that the cuts to defense and discretionary domestic spending would occur if members of Congress did not come up with an alternative plan to reduce spending.

Hagel blamed Congress for the sequester cuts, when asked on CBS’ “Face the Nation” about his recent proposal to reduce the size of the United States military:

Hagel, March 2: And by the way, it isn’t me cutting the budget. It’s the Congress’ 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– 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.

But both Obama and Congress were responsible for the cuts in the military budget that went into effect last year — as we wrote when Republicans blamed the president for the cuts by calling it the “Obamaquester.”

In the summer of 2011, when Democrats and Republicans couldn’t agree on a way to cut spending in exchange for increasing the federal government’s borrowing limit, legislators settled on the Budget Control Act instead. The bill passed in both the House and Senate with bipartisan support, and Obama signed it into law.

The law capped federal discretionary spending to save nearly $1 trillion over 10 years, but also mandated that a bipartisan, 12-person congressional committee find at least $1.5 trillion in additional cuts. If the committee failed to find at least $1.2 trillion in cuts, they would occur automatically — half from defense spending and the rest from discretionary spending on domestic programs — through sequestration. The committee failed to reach an agreement, and the automatic cuts went into effect in March 2013.

But Hagel is now blaming Congress for the cuts going into effect, and for not coming up with a plan since then to fully repeal them. Congress did restore $31.5 billion of the defense cuts over two years when it passed the Bipartisan Budget Act in December. But, in a Feb. 24 speech, Hagel explained some of the problems the Defense Department faces under sequestration, despite the budget relief:

Hagel, Feb 24: Two months ago, rather than fully repealing sequestration, Congress passed the Bipartisan Budget Act, which provided DoD with some relief in this Fiscal Year and for Fiscal Year 2015. The Bipartisan Budget Act gives DoD much-needed budget certainty for the next fiscal year. But, defense spending remains significantly below what the President requested in his Fiscal Year 2014 budget request and five year budget plan.

Under the spending limits of the Bipartisan Budget Act, DoD’s budget is roughly $496 billion this Fiscal Year – or $31 billion below what the President requested.  The law also limits DoD spending in Fiscal Year 2015 to $496 billion, which is $45 billion less than was projected in the President’s budget request last year. So while DoD welcomes the measure of relief and stability that the [Bipartisan] Budget Act provided, it still forces us to cut more than $75 billion over this two-year period, in addition to the $37 billion cut we took last year and the Budget Control Act’s 10-year reductions of $487 billion.  And sequestration-level cuts remain the law for Fiscal Year 2016 and beyond.

But that still doesn’t free Obama from responsibility for the cuts.

He signed the Budget Control Act that created a scenario for the sequestration cuts to happen. Plus, he signed the Bipartisan Budget Act which didn’t fully eliminate the cuts, either.

 — D’Angelo Gore