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By Julie Kliegman March 5, 2014

Hagel says Congress responsible for defense cuts, not Obama

President Barack Obama released his proposed budget for fiscal year 2015 on Tuesday. One point of contention is that the budget he proposed will reduce the army to its smallest size since 1940.

On CBS’ Face the Nation on Sunday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told host Bob Schieffer that he’s not responsible for those cuts.

"It isn’t me cutting the budget," he said. "It’s the Congress’ decision on sequestration. So it isn’t the secretary of defense or the president doing this, and I think we should clear that up a little bit here, too."

At first glance, Hagel attributing defense cuts to Congress contradicts Obama’s proposed budget, which itself cuts Department of Defense funding levels. PolitiFact wanted to review how the cuts came to be, and how that affects the defense budget.

How the sequester came to be

Congress passed the Budget Control Act in August 2011 to resolve the debt ceiling crisis. Republicans and some Democrats insisted that the Obama administration offset an increase in the debt ceiling, the amount of money the treasury can borrow, with a plan to reduce the nation’s debt. Had Congress not passed this law, the United States could’ve defaulted on payments like Social Security and Medicare for the first time in history.

The Budget Control Act included $1.2 trillion in cuts and formed a joint House and Senate super-committee to find another $1.2 trillion by Nov. 23, 2011.

Since the super-committee failed to do this, the law called for sequestration, or across-the-board spending cuts, to go into effect in 2013. Each year, budget cuts are split evenly between non-war defense spending and discretionary domestic spending.

Lawmakers in both chambers passed this act with bipartisan support, and then Obama signed it into law.

We’ve reported before that the Obama administration originally proposed the sequester as a tactic to get Congress to come up with more targeted spending cuts. Since both Democrats and Republicans stood to lose funding for things they supported, it was widely thought that they would work out a deficit reduction and stop the sequester before 2013. Essentially, Congress and Obama both approved a measure they’re now unhappy with and forced to work around.

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"It’s always entertaining to me to see everyone trying to run away from (the sequester)," said Todd Harrison, a defense budget studies senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "Everyone agreed to it except for the Pentagon."

How Obama pushed back against the sequester

The White House and Congress jointly established the sequester in 2011. But as Harrison noted, there’s a contradiction here. Recently, both groups have taken some action to exceed the sequester’s cap on defense spending.

The budget caps for fiscal years 2014 and 2015 were set in December with a bipartisan budget agreement from Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., that rolled back the sequester in favor of more specific cuts. The 2015 defense spending cap was set at $496 billion, about $7 billion more than the sequester would have allocated. The Ryan-Murray deal left it up to Congress and the Department of Defense to determine how the cuts would be distributed.

Again, this bill had support on both sides of the aisle. Obama signed it into law Dec. 26.

Obama’s 2015 main defense budget proposal doesn’t exceed the $496 billion approved defense spending cuts he and Congress set up. However, he also proposed giving the Pentagon an extra $26.4 billion as part of a separate budget package, a $56 billion, paid-for investment fund called the Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative. He proposed giving the Department of Defense funds for weapon systems modernization, readiness restoration and facilities improvement.

In fiscal year 2014, the Department of Defense effectively didn’t see any cuts because funding above the cap was moved to the war budget, a separate fund for Afghanistan, Harrison said. The White House hasn’t yet proposed a 2015 war budget, because that’s dependent on how many troops will stay overseas.

Obama’s 2014 and 2015 proposals show that his ideal figure for defense spending is higher than what the sequester caps allow for. That said, since 2011, Obama’s defense proposal figures have come down slightly, while the Budget Control Act’s have come up. So although the Obama administration wants defense spending to exceed the caps, he’s not necessarily advocating for pre-sequester level spending.

Our ruling

Hagel said it wasn’t he or Obama that made defense cuts, it was Congress in passing the sequester. Hagel himself wasn’t working in government at the time, so he has no tie to the cuts.

Obama literally signed Congress’ defense cuts into law in both 2011 and 2013. At the same time, his budgets have proposed funding defense spending at a level above what the caps call for, showing that he doesn’t fully support the very agreements he signed.

Hagel’s claim omits two instances where Obama supported defense spending cuts on record. We rate his claim Half True.

Our Sources

Email interview with Carlin Woog, Department of Defense spokesman, March 3, 2014

New York Times, "Pentagon plans to shrink army to pre-World War II level," Feb. 23, 2013

Phone interview with Christopher Pretto, Cato Institute vice president for defense and foreign policy studies, March 3, 2014

Phone interview with Russell Rambuagh, Stimson Center senior associate, March 3, 2014

Phone interview with Todd Harrison, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments defense budget studies senior fellow, March 3, 2014

Politico, "Obama fund binds pre-K, defense money," Feb. 28, 2014

PolitiFact, "Barack Obama says Congress owns sequestration," Oct. 24, 2012

Reuters, "Pentagon would use extra funds to buy aircraft," March 4, 2014

U.S. Department of Defense, "Hagel outlines budget reducing troop strength, force structure," Feb. 24, 2014

Wall Street Journal, "As Pentagon budget shrinks, spending points to future priorities," March 4, 2014

Washington Post, "Hagel is trying to get ahead of the ‘tough’ defense budget battles," Feb. 26, 2014

Washington Post, "Obama budget seeks new spending, new taxes to boost economy, tame debt," March 4, 2014

Washington Post, "The sequester, explained," Sept. 24, 2012

White House, "Fiscal year 2015 budget," March 4, 2014

U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Budget, "Summary of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013," Dec. 10, 2013

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Hagel says Congress responsible for defense cuts, not Obama

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