When some defense cuts aren't really cuts

As both parties in Congress angle for advantage over scheduled automatic budget cuts that are set to hit in March, Republicans on Wednesday laid out plans to avert spending reductions for the military, arguing too much has already been chopped from the Pentagon.

"We are really in dire straits," said Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA), who chairs the House Armed Services Committee.

Just as McKeon was announcing his effort to short circuit part of the sequester, the Pentagon let it be known that budget constraints would keep the military from having two carrier battle groups in the Persian Gulf, seemingly a reminder to Congress about the consequence of what would be about $42 billion in across the board defense cuts.

"We've already cut $487 billion out of defense," said McKeon, a number that was echoed by several other Republicans at a Capitol Hill news conference.

That sounds like a big deal - a cut of $487 billion over ten years, with more cuts coming from the automatic cuts known as the sequester.

But after a little digging, I figured out what that $487 billion number really represented - a reduction in the planned spending increases for the Pentagon over ten years.

The $487 billion comes from the debt limit agreement in 2011 known as the Budget Control Act, which reduced the planned level of military spending over ten years.

So, it's not really a spending cut from current budget levels.  Just smaller increases.

It's always interesting to see Republicans use that kind of budget argument, since many in the GOP have accused Democrats of doing the same thing when it comes to proposed budget changes in domestic spending - often charging that Republicans are cutting certain programs, when they are just reducing the level of increase.

I guess what goes around comes around in the budget debate.

But jump ahead now to the automatic budget cuts in March - would those be real cuts? The answer is - yes - they would be taken out of this year's spending.

This year it would be over $42 billion for the Pentagon, as Rep. McKeon's group is proposing to hold off on the entire $85 billion sequester that is due to hit in March by drawing down the number of federal workers.

But this plan uses another familiar Washington, D.C. budget maneuver - it would deal with the $85 billion in cuts by paying for it over ten years.

In other words, there would not be $85 billion in savings in 2013 to offset the $85 billion in scheduled automatic cuts - instead it would be stretched out over ten years, for an average savings of $8.5 billion a year.

This GOP plan would basically say that for every three federal workers who leave their jobs, you could only hire one person for Uncle Sam.

Also, the plan would freeze Congressional pay for that same ten year period.

As for the bottom line - will the automatic cuts happen on March 1?

"I don’t like the sequester," said Speaker John Boehner on Wednesday when asked about the across the board cuts.

“I think it’s taking a meat ax to our government," the Speaker told reporters, "and it will weaken our national defense.”

But as of now, there's no deal to replace the sequester cuts, which really are cuts, unlike some of those other budget cuts, which really aren't cuts.