Justin Elliott has a useful story on how the press and politicians have inflated the military budget cuts that are part of the sequester that triggers at the end of the year. The total budgetary savings from the sequester are $1.2 trillion, equally divided between defense and discretionary spending. However, that includes the savings that come from reduced interest payments over ten years. If you borrow less because of spending cuts, your financing costs go down, to put it simply. But politicians have simply been folding the lowered interest payments into the “cuts” to the military.
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.
The cuts are flat and across-the-board, with a little less than $55 billion in reductions every year for nine years. 18% of the total sequestration is assumed away from lower debt service. Even when CBO recalculated a smaller savings from debt service (because of lower interest rates), that didn’t affect the topline number: $55 billion a year for 9 years.
This $55 billion in annual cuts comes on a budget of $868.1 billion, accounting for everything, including overseas contingency operations. That’s a reduction of 6.3%. It’s simply not a disaster. And you can tell that it’s not as bad as advertised by how it’s been inflated in the press. In the official documents from opponents of the sequester, like House Armed Services Chair Buck McKeon, they use the correct figure. It’s only in the media that $492 billion becomes $600 billion.
The House Armed Services Committee vainly tried to claim that the cuts would need to go beyond $492 billion to accommodate costs for renegotiating and canceling contracts and offering severance to civilian military personnel who would get laid off. But Elliott checked with military budget experts who said that these additional costs would be nominal, and certainly not another $100 billion. After all, many of the contracts for cuts nine years down the road have not been signed. You could easily avoid such penalties.
It’s important to get these numbers right. $984 billion in cuts to the federal budget, half to the military and half to the discretionary budget, are certainly not invisible. They would have a serious impact, especially on the discretionary side. But the propagandists inflating the figures should get called out.