Even people in the know are having trouble making sense of how sudden, automatic defense cuts could ripple across Washington state if federal lawmakers fail to reach a budget compromise this fall.
That danger comes from so-called sequestration – $1.2 trillion in across-the-board reductions to domestic budgets and defense spending. The cuts would take effect over the next 10 years unless Congress finds a way to forestall them by Jan. 2.
The Defense Department makes up a disproportionate share of the cuts – $500 billion, at least $55 billion of which would go into effect immediately. It’s not clear yet how the Pentagon would put them in place.
Washington state, with its dense concentration of military-related industries, could lose at least 41,000 jobs, according to a July study by Stephen Fuller of George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis.
The heavy cuts also would impact federally funded domestic programs such as courts, farm subsidies, national park rangers, air traffic controllers and public housing projects.
Fuller’s report, funded by the Aerospace Industries Association, estimated the country would lose 2 million jobs under sequestration as federal layoffs mount and drag down the economy.
Sequestration wouldn’t affect military pay, but defense service contracts and construction could be on the chopping block.
It’s unclear how it could unfold at Joint Base Lewis-McChord after a bonanza of government investment there over the last decade.
Col. Charles Hodges, Lewis-McChord’s new garrison commander, manages all the services the Defense Department provides to the base’s 29,000 residents and its 43,000 service members.
Hodges said the Pentagon has not asked him to start drawing up plans for how the base south of Tacoma might adopt the cuts described under sequestration.
“We’re hoping for the best,” Hodges said.
The federal cuts were supposed to be so unthinkable that they would compel lawmakers to get back to the table to craft a long-term budget deal and deficit reduction plan after Congress’ “supercommittee” failed to do so in 2011.
A year later, the partisan divide has only worsened.
“At this point, there is a distinct risk of it happening because in order to prevent sequestration you have to have the House and Senate agree on something,” said Rep. Adam Smith of Tacoma, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.
Smith characterized the odds of Congress making a deal to halt sequestration as “50-50.” He thinks it’s unlikely lawmakers would reach an agreement until after the November election.
They’ll also have to decide whether to extend some or all of the Bush-era tax cuts that are set to expire. Both parties say they want to avoid the sharp defense cuts of sequestration, but they differ on the Bush tax cuts and strategies to trim deficit spending.
“Post election, I think you’ll have a different dynamic,” Smith said. “Everyone coming back will have different incentives to stop the expiration of tax cuts, stop the sequestration.”
House Republicans in May passed a budget that would have avoided sequestration and reduced the military cuts. President Obama rejected it because he believed it slashed spending on other programs too severely.
“We want to be prudent with how we spend taxpayers’ money, but the way sequestration goes about it is not the best way and is actually a pretty bad way to do it,” said Todd Winer, spokesman for Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane.
McMorris Rodgers supported the House Republican budget, and she has been hearing concern about sequestration from military families around Fairchild Air Force Base in her district.
Military service members and representatives from the state’s defense industry are struggling to figure out where and how the ax might fall.
“Our members know cuts are coming, but the cuts built into sequestration are extreme, and overnight,” said Sean Murphy, executive director of the Portland-based Pacific Northwest Defense Coalition. The organization advocates for defense manufacturers and contractors.
“What makes sequestration a bigger issue is the uncertainty that surrounds it,” he added. “No one knows for sure what programs will be cut or eliminated, or if Congress will take corrective action or not.”
Lewis-McChord’s new garrison commander is in the dark, too.
Hodges was at a public meeting in Lakewood Tuesday when he asked Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., to make sense of whether sequestration will move forward and what kind of impact it might have.
She replied that lawmakers never intended for sequestration to take place when they wrote it into a bill called the Budget Control Act of 2011. She couldn’t say exactly how it would impact the country, but she said Congress would have a clearer picture next month when a report is due detailing probable cuts.
“No one wants sequestration to happen. It is just about the wrong way to do anything,” said Murray, who last year led the supercommittee that was tasked with making a plan to reduce the nation’s deficit by at least $1.2 trillion.
Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Belfair, said it’s time for leaders in the House, Senate and White House to sit down and make a deal to at least remove the threat of sequestration.
So far, he said few voters are talking about the spending reductions even though they could severely hurt the economic recovery.
“I’ve been trying to talk this up and trying to get some action on it,” he said. “There’s been a void on leadership here in all corners.”
“The whole idea of the Budget Control Act was to help the economy, help unemployment and reduce the deficit,” said Dicks, who is retiring this year. “If we let this happen, it will hurt the economy, it will make unemployment worse and it’ll hurt the deficit, so it’s totally counterproductive.”