Democratic and Republican lawmakers from Virginia warned of “grave consequences” for their state in a letter last month opposing automatic federal spending cuts. They urged the president and congressional leaders to take “immediate action to avert the devastating impacts.”
Last week, they voted to keep those cuts in place.
It’s a bipartisan trend on Capitol Hill: Complain in public appearances and letters about the impact of $85 billion in automatic budget reductions, known as sequestration, that are scheduled to take effect this year while doing nothing to stop them. The dueling messages reflect a balance some lawmakers are trying to strike between shrinking spending and standing up for programs their voters favor.
Club for Growth president Chris Chocola called the reductions a “good first step,” and said he doesn’t mind members speaking out against spending cuts -- so long as they keep voting for them.
“What they say and what they do are two very different things,” said Chocola, who was a Republican congressman from Indiana before becoming head of the anti-tax Washington group. “They’re politicians.”
The across-the-board 5.8 percent federal spending reduction that began March 1 was meant to scare Congress into action on a deficit reduction package. Instead, the House voted to keep the cuts in place through Sept. 30 in a funding measure it passed March 6 to avoid a government shutdown. The Senate begins action on the bill today. The federal government’s funding is due to expire on March 27.
“The somewhat sympathetic view is that you’re never going to get a bill that’s everything you want, and you’re often faced with a couple of bad choices,” said Tom Perriello, president of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, which urges tax revisions as a way to close the deficit.
“The more cynical view is that this is a solvable problem. Members are smart enough to know that sequester is bad for the economy but don’t want to put themselves on record for doing any of the things to solve it,” said Perriello, a former Democratic congressman from Virginia.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said she opposed the funding legislation because it was more about preserving spending cuts than avoiding a government shutdown. The bill leads “down a path that is harmful to our economy, and harmful to our national security,” she said in a March 6 House floor speech.
Some Republican-leaning groups, including FreedomWorks, opposed the legislation, saying the cuts aren’t deep enough.
“Everyone talks about how irrational sequester is, but it may be the most rational thing they can do because of the very dynamic we’re seeing here: No one wants cuts in their district,” said Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, an anti-tax, pro-small government nonprofit based in Washington. “They’re playing this game of not wanting to put specifics on the table because they’re worried about their next election.”
The cuts will slow economic growth by 0.5 percentage points of GDP and cost the economy 350,000 jobs, according to the median estimate of private forecasters surveyed by Bloomberg News.
Investors are signaling they view the $15.8 trillion U.S. economy as strong enough to weather the reductions in federal spending. Yields on 10-year treasury notes rose two basis points, or 0.02 percentage points, to close at 2.06 percent at 5 p.m. yesterday in New York. That compares with an average of 4.88 percent over the past 20 years. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index climbed 0.3 percent to 1,556.22, the highest level since October 2007.
The government funding measure passed the House with the support of 214 Republicans and 53 Democrats -- many of whom have been grumbling about the damage the automatic cuts are causing.
The Virginia lawmakers wrote in a Feb. 15 letter to President Barack Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker John Boehner that their state would “bear a disproportionate amount of the pain” from cuts because its economy relies heavily on defense spending and federal jobs. It was signed by the state’s two senators -- Democrats Mark Warner and Tim Kaine -- as well as Democratic Representatives Bobby Scott, Jim Moran and Gerry Connolly and Republican Representatives Rob Wittman, Scott Rigell, J. Randy Forbes and Frank Wolf.
Lives ‘At Stake’
The congressmen have repeated the letter’s themes in public appearances and interviews. Wittman was quoted in Business Insider March 4 saying that “men and women’s lives are at stake” because of the mandatory military cuts. “It’s troubling the magnitude of what’s being placed on defense,” he was quoted as saying.
Rigell was present Feb. 26 at a shipyard in Newport News, Virginia, where Obama spoke about the damaging impact of sequestration.
Connolly was the only letter-signer to vote against the measure that continues sequestration.
Several of the Virginia lawmakers said in press releases and in statements to Bloomberg that they backed the bill because it provides some flexibility to the Pentagon, a key issue for a state where federal defense spending makes up almost 14 percent of the gross domestic product, according to a Bloomberg Government study.
“In the end, the vote was a choice between dysfunctional government under an imperfect bill if it passed or potentially no government at all if it failed,” Scott said in a March 6 press release.
The complaints go beyond defense cuts.
Texas Representative Michael McCaul, Republican chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, voted for the government funding measure one week after he sent a letter to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement expressing outrage that some illegal immigrants had been released from detention centers -- an action the agency said it took because of the required spending cuts.
McCaul said in his letter that the action “reflects the lack of resource prioritization.”
Representative Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, also blamed bureaucrats -- and not sequestration -- when he decried the Federal Aviation’s decision to close 189 air-traffic control towers.
A day after he backed the measure that keeps the reductions in place, he put out a press release saying “local airports play a vital role in communities.”
“I find it difficult to believe that an agency that spends $500 million on consultants and $200 million on travel each year cannot find the funds to fully maintain this important part of nation’s transportation infrastructure,” he said.
Representative Ami Bera, a California Democrat, has raised alarms about the danger the cuts pose to public safety, disparaging sequestration as “not a real solution.”
“If we don’t act to avoid these spending cuts, we threaten the very safety of our community and our country,” Bera said on the House floor Feb. 26. Warning that federal funding for community firefighters would be cut, he said, “homes are going to burn.”
Bera, a physician who took office in January, also wrote an editorial in the Sacramento Bee newspaper that day describing the automatic spending cuts as “another self-imposed, arbitrary crisis.”
“These haphazard cuts will impact everything from education and jobs in Sacramento County to our country’s national security,” he wrote.
Days later, he was one of the 53 Democrats voting to allow the spending reductions to take place.
In a statement to Bloomberg, Bera said the budget measure that includes sequestration was “far from ideal.”
“But it would have been reckless for me to vote in a way that could cause a government shutdown and hurt many Sacramento County residents,” he said.