Due Diligence: Romney attacks on defense cuts

(CBS News) Mitt Romney has a message that he believes will help him with military voters: President Obama pushed the massive defense cuts that are set to kick in at the end of the year. It's a message with particular resonance in Virginia, a crucial swing state with a significant military population. Romney made is argument in Virginia Beach earlier this month, echoing ads he is running in the state.

"We're talking about $1 trillion in cuts," he said, combining the looming cuts with earlier cuts already agreed to by the Pentagon. "The estimates of the kind of numbers of jobs lost in Virginia from these cuts is between 100,000 and 200,000. It's unthinkable. It's unthinkable to Virginia, to our employment needs, but it's also unthinkable to the ability and the commitment of America to maintain our liberty, with liberty for all. And, therefore, if I'm President of the United States, we'll get rid of those sequestration cuts and rebuild America's military might." 

The "sequestration cuts" Romney is talking about are the planned $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts set to kick in at the end of the year, about $500 billion of which comes from defense budget. (The cuts are set to phase in over nine years.) Now, neither party wants them. But they may get them anyway.

Back in 2011, the parties were engaged in a standoff over raising the debt ceiling. Republicans would only agree to raise the debt ceiling in exchange for a deal to significantly reduce the deficit. Since they were unable to come up with a deal in the short term, lawmakers came up with a plan: Set up a bipartisan "supercommittee" to find $1.2 trillion in additional cuts. And mandate that if lawmakers fail, automatic, nearly across-the-board cuts would kick in at the end of the year. The idea was that because both parties did not want that to happen, lawmakers would come to a deal. Of course, in this polarized age, they didn't.

So now the sequester looms as part of what some call the "fiscal cliff." Unless something changes, the first round of cuts - to the tune of $109 billion - will come in January.

There are a couple problems with Romney's efforts to blame the president for this. The first is that the sequester deal was the result of the demands of Congressional Republicans. The second is that those same Congressional Republicans - including Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan - voted to set the cuts in motion.

"What conservatives like me have been fighting for, for years, are statutory caps on spending, legal caps in law that says government agencies cannot spend over a set amount of money," Ryan said on Fox News, lauding the deal. "And if they breach that amount across the board, sequester comes in to cut that spending, and you can't turn that off without a super-majority vote. We got that in law."

Romney blames the president for the cuts by pointing to a report in Bob Woodward's new book that the idea for the deal originated in the White House. And while the White House says the cuts would be "deeply destructive," the president has also that he will veto any bill to repeal the sequester, saying lawmakers either have to come to a deal or accept the cuts. But in light of the fact that Romney's own party's debt ceiling demands are the reason the sequester needed to be devised in the first place, it's a pretty big stretch to cast the cuts as the president's fault.

What is true is that Romney wants to spend more money on the military than the president. He has vowed to spend at least 4 percent of gross domestic product on defense. Assuming the economy does not tank in the coming years, that would mean a significant expansion in military spending despite the winding down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. One analysis found that Romney's baseline would add $2.3 trillion to the defense budget over 10 years from projected 2013 spending levels.