At a Tuesday hearing aimed at getting lawmakers to start negotiating a deficit reduction and budget deal, a Senate committee focused on the economic and national security damage of across-the-board cuts in defense programs.
But remarks by committee members revealed the difficulty in achieving a deal to avoid $52 billion in sequestration cuts to the defense budget next year.
“If sequestration is not replaced, the effects on our economy and our national security over the long term will only get worse,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairwoman of the Senate Budget Committee and a member of the Senate leadership.
“We can replace these cuts with smarter choices that are better for national security and long-term growth, as well as our fiscal health,” Murray said. “While I believe there are responsible spending cuts to be made in defense programs, the current across-the-board cuts and future arbitrary spending reductions over the next eight years as part of sequestration are not the answer.”
Defense budget reductions, especially the across-the-board cuts of sequestration that result from Congress not reaching a deal on spending, remain a partisan issue.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said he isn’t convinced that furloughs for 650,000 civilian Defense employees were all necessary and suggested they were done for political reasons.
“I am beginning to wonder if the president isn’t quite happy to see the Defense Department takes these cuts,” Sessions said, complaining that many non-defense programs have not faced any belt-tightening.
“Most of us agree we need to get rid of sequestration,” said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. But he said an agreement has to include tax reform, cuts in entitlements and cuts in spending.
Jennifer-Cari Green, a secretary at Madigan Army Medical Center, Wash., told senators furloughs have hit her hard. A 26-year-old divorcee with a 6-year-old son, Green said her “current budget is already stripped to bare bones but we have been making it, barely.”
Furloughs, which come on top of three years of pay freezes, have hurt, she said. “I live without luxuries. I don’t have cable in my home. I don’t go get my nails done, eat out frequently or do any of the things people generally think they will have to cut back on when times are tough. For my family, times have already been tough for quite a while.”
Green calculated her furlough will result in a 32 percent pay cut because deductions for things like health care continue even though she is not getting paid. “I don’t know where I will make up that cost,” she said. “This furlough will likely cause me to slip below the line into poverty.”
Businesses also have been hurt by sequestration, said Mark Klett, a disabled veteran who runs a Virginia-based consulting group in which 60 percent of the employees are veterans. “In a time in which efficiencies need to be created, sequestration introduces inefficiencies and delays that are making a bad situation worse for companies of all sizes,” Klett said.
Klett’s business “has seen gaps of two weeks to one month on contracts” because of incremental funding and other delays. “The government’s inability to execute timely contracts for what is needed in critical areas leads to overall waste of funds, and the government is getting less product in the end,” he said.
Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute’s Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies said there is no good way to manage another round of across-the-board budget cuts.
“Even if managed ‘rationally,’ a further reduction of 10 percent per year for the next decade, coming on top of the cuts already made in the past, will have, in my judgment, a crippling effect on the American military, on the United States’ ability to shape a peaceful, prosperous and free world and, ultimately, on our national security.”
Donnelly, a former editor of Army Times and a former House Armed Services Committee staff member, said it is hard to know the exact details, and statements coming out of the defense industry have an “undeniable ‘Chicken Little’ character” to them.
Still, he said the “most immediate” effect would be reductions in operations and maintenance accounts, but that weapons procurement and research would also suffer long-term effects.
Weapons programs, he said, have been underfunded since the end of the Cold War. “Almost without exception, a whole generation of systems has been canceled, produced in severely limited quantities before termination, or seen stretched schedules that have resulted in years of delay and multiplied costs,” he said.