The joint high speed vessel Millinocket awaits delivery at Austal USA shipyard in Mobile, Ala, in June. Lawmakers cited Mobile as one of the defense industrial areas in danger if sequester cuts continue. (Austal USA via US Navy)
WASHINGTON — Pro-defense US senators altered tactics on Wednesday, warning of big job cuts and business closures unless the next batch of sequestration cuts are at least delayed.
For two years, pro-defense lawmakers mostly have called Pentagon officials to testify and leaned on the gloomy assessments of the nation’s top generals, admirals and their civilian bosses.
But the dire predictions of what sequestration would mean for the military and its ability to fight did not work — sequestration took effect last March when Congress and the White House failed to pass a big fiscal deal that would undo sequestration.
Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee chairman, said the 2014 round of sequestration would mean cuts to non-exempt accounts “50 percent larger than last year, a total of $52 billion.”
In all, unless sequestration is replaced, lessened or cast aside, planned Pentagon spending is slated to drop by another $450 billion through 2021. (Even with sequestration, the annual Pentagon budget is slated to again peak at $500 billion a year in a few years.)
Senate Democrats — joined by several GOP members — on Wednesday trotted out a new strategy to jolt the political system to pass a big sequester-addressing fiscal bill: They focused on specific companies, kinds of jobs and named cities that would suffer most.
Durbin said “millions of middle-class workers” are at risk, including welders, engineers, computer scientists, and machinists who build weapon systems or their component parts.
More defense sequester cuts, which target only non-exempt accounts including procurement and research and development (R&D), will ravage “medium and small businesses,” he said
Unless “something is done soon,” Durbin said, sequestration will further harm jobs and businesses in “places like Mobile, Ala., Newport, R.I., Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas — hubs of this sector.”
“Good-paying jobs across the entire nation — gone,” Durbin exclaimed. “That is what we face with this mindless sequestration approach.”
Moderate Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, joined her Democratic mates, listing specific companies and factories in her home state that are feeling the brunt of the automatic defense cuts.
It is hurting Maine’s defense firms “large and small,” she said, saying CEOs and rank-and-file defense-sector employees tell her they are unable to plan ahead and make smart business decisions.
“Ultimately, they end up paying more,” she said, adding one Maine firm’s defense business “has dried up completely.” That company now has 10 employees; before the cuts, it had five times as many. “It is really struggling to survive,” Collins said.
Such warnings have been heard for months on Capitol Hill, to be sure — but mostly on the House side, where the typically more business-friendly Republicans are in charge.
The Senate Democrats’ new tactics come as they continue a weeks-old push to replace the twin defense and domestic spending cuts with their preferred “balanced” package of deficit-reducing “targeted” spending cuts, new tax revenues and some domestic entitlement program changes.
As part of this shift, Senate Democrats on Wednesday also sought to — as full Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., put it — “give voice to” industry officials who are affected by the budget cuts.
Defense industry representatives warned of rising R&D and procurement costs. They warned of lost jobs, and predicted dire outcomes for small and medium-sized suppliers.
One called 2014 and 2015 “the most critical years” of the sequestration era because those are the ones that call for the deepest Pentagon cuts — and the hardest hits to accounts used to develop and buy new combat systems.
They pleaded for Congress to turn off the cuts. They endorsed a plan pushed by Mikulski that would delay the 2014 and 2015 sequester rounds, allowing industry to plan ahead and brace for a 2016 cut with more certainty.
The subcommittee heard from a handful of industry representatives, who collectively spent over an hour reading their detailed prepared remarks.
As the witnesses read their lengthy statements to a mostly empty dais in the spacious Dirksen Senate Office Building room, their voices, like Collins’ before, echoed.
As they warned of “lost industrial capabilities,” higher unemployment, and other “dangers,” their voices reverberated off the walls.
Only a few subcommittee members even showed up.■