PoliGraph: Cravaack misses on defense cut claim

Rep. Chip Cravaack was one of four Minnesota lawmakers who voted against the bill to raise the nation’s $14.3 trillion debt ceiling.

Among his reasons for rejecting the measure is that it would cut defense spending by half.

The debt ceiling “bill risks cutting 50 percent in current military spending, endangering our national security amid an ever-increasing and varied level of credible threats targeting the U.S. and our military operations,” he wrote in an Aug. 3, 2011, Duluth News Tribune opinion piece.

Cravaack’s claim is false.

The Evidence

The debt ceiling deal immediately trims $917 billion in discretionary spending over 10 years. Those savings are achieved in part by capping “security” spending, which includes the Department of Defense, the State Department, and the Department of Homeland Security, among other branches of government. Congress will ultimately work out the details, but the White House projects that $420 billion will be saved.

The second round of cuts is less certain. A House and Senate panel is supposed to put together a plan by Thanksgiving to slash an additional $1.2-to-$1.5 trillion in spending; it could include defense spending cuts, but no one knows for sure – it’s all up to Congress.

What it seems Cravaack is talking about is the worst case scenario, one that budget and defense analysts say is unlikely to occur given how the bill is set up.

If lawmakers can’t agree on additional cuts by Thanksgiving, spending would automatically be reduced by $1.2 trillion. Half of those cuts would come from defense spending, and half would come from other areas of government spending. The idea is that conservatives won’t want to dig deep into the defense budget, and liberals won’t want to cut social safety net programs.

In that regard, Cravaack’s statement is inaccurate. He says that the bill “risks cutting 50 percent in current military spending,” which is not the case. Rather, half the $1.2 trillion will come from defense spending, which is largely Department of Defense spending.

Budget officials estimate that the federal government is slated to spend in the range of $6 trillion on peacetime defense activities over the next 10 years. To cut that in half would mean trimming $3 trillion from the defense department’s budget.

Even if Congress can’t work out additional spending cuts by Thanksgiving, the automatic spending cuts would only reduce the defense department’s budget by about $490 billion over 10 years (the rest of the $600 billion would be made up in interest savings.) That’s still far less than Cravaack’s statement implies.

We sent an email to Cravaack’s staff asking him to clarify his statement, but received no response.

Update: Cravaack’s spokesman did get back to us, saying that his boss was referring to 50 percent of the $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts.

The Verdict

Cravaack is wrong. The bill would not cut military spending in half. Instead, if lawmakers can’t lay out a plan, half of the $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts would come from defense.


The Duluth News Tribune, Congressman’s view: Constituents asked for vote against debt deal, by Rep. Chip Cravaack, Aug. 3, 2011

The Cable, Levin and McCain: We have no idea how much debt deal cuts defense, by Josh Rogin, Aug. 2, 2011

Defense Buck Does Not Stop with This Debt Deal, by Winslow T. Wheeler, Aug. 2, 2011

A Dangerous Debt Ceiling Deal, By Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D. August 1, 2011

The Washington Post, Will the defense cuts stick?, by Brad Plumer, Aug. 2, 2011

The House Rules Committee, Text of the Budget Control Act, accessed Aug. 4, 2011

National Public Radio, Pentagon Could See Deep Cuts In Debt Deal, by Rachel Martin, Aug. 3, 2011

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, How the Potential Across-the-Board Cuts in the Debt Limit Deal Would Occur, by Richard Kogan, Aug. 4, 2011

Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Defense Funding in the Budget Control Act of 2011, by Todd Harrison, August 2011

The White House, Security Spending in the Deficit Agreement, by Office of Management and Budget director Jack Lew, Aug. 4, 2011

The Congressional Budget Office, estimated impact of the Budget Control Act of 2011, Aug. 1, 2011

Interview, Winslow Wheeler, the Center for Defense Information, Aug. 4, 2011

Interview, Lawrence Korb, the Center for American Progress, Aug. 4, 2011

Interview, James Carafano, the Heritage Foundation, Aug. 4, 2011

Interview, Todd Harrison, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Aug. 5, 2011

Email exchange, Michael Bars, spokesman for Rep. Chip Cravaack, Aug. 4, 2011

  • Carl Johnson

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, MPR for doing a little fact checking. The media spends way too much time reporting partisan utterances as “news”. An informed citizenry needs information, not spin. Everybody knows what professional advocates for the Democrats, Republicans, organized labor, AARP and the Chamber of Commerce are going to say before they say it. Thank you for this small, but appreciated, effort to call BS. More please!!

  • Owen

    Kudos to Carl Johnson whose comments include that list of advocates who can be expected to present predictable replies to any issue that arises. And he comes off as an equal opportunity critic, too.

  • Jamie

    Oh! I get it. You had to have some of your typical false balance, so you picked on an innocuous error that Keith Ellison made that didn’t matter in the debate, because you were planning to write about a consequential inaccurate statement made by a Republican.

    When I heard this radio segment coming on a few minutes ago, I thought, “Maybe she’ll tell us why she thinks Keith Ellison’s error mattered. Maybe I’m overlooking something.”


    And you can tell how important listeners’/readers’ comments are to MPR by how her story didn’t change one iota even though there were valid, critical comments about her post on Ellison here which appeared about a day ahead of the radio segment.

  • Jamie

    Just because you know what they’re going to say before they say it, Carl, doesn’t mean it’s false or doesn’t matter. Except that much of what Republicans say IS false. So, yes, it’s good to have fact-checkers, but if fact-checking is done on both parties, it should be on (roughly) equally consequential statements made by the representatives of those parties.

  • Mark

    James Traub had an interesting piece in FP today… and I think he makes an excellent strategic point… the 50% cuts (as this author states) are to security, not just defense. Given the stated positions of the GOP, rather than cut DoD fat is it not reasonable to expect that they will pursue the leaner and less popular USAID and the state department? I expect that to be their position…