Politicians in Washington, D.C., are scrambling to avoid half a trillion dollars in cuts to the Pentagon that could leave hundreds of Fort Drum contractors without work and slash aid to north country schools, but it doesn’t appear any resolution will come before the Nov. 6 election.
That will keep the Fort Drum community on edge, and will ensure the issue of defense cuts remains prominent in the north country’s race for the House of Representatives.
“We clearly do not want (the cuts) to happen,” said Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh. “But it requires people to step up and compromise.”
Mr. Owens voted for the bill that set in motion the process for cuts to defense spending. His opponent, Republican Matthew A. Doheny, said he wouldn’t have voted for the bill and took Mr. Owens to task for his vote against one of many efforts at undoing the cuts.
Here’s how it all started: In August 2011, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and President Barack Obama, a Democrat, came to an agreement to raise the debt ceiling, which averted a federal default.
Instead of identifying cuts immediately, Congress and Mr. Obama put the task to a committee of a dozen members of Congress who would decide on which cuts to make or which taxes to increase. In case they didn’t come to an agreement, the automatic, across-the-board cuts to military spending and entitlement spending would replace the cuts or tax increases.
Those cuts were meant to force both sides to negotiate; the military cuts in particular don’t allow the Department of Defense to pick which programs to cut and which ones to maintain. It’s been described as a blind, across-the-board cut. The sides would have no choice but to negotiate, the thinking went.
But the super-committee couldn’t come to an agreement, and those cuts, often referred to as sequestration, loom in the beginning of 2013.
“Sequestration is probably working in that it’s so frightful that people are looking for alternatives,” said Carl A. McLaughlin, the head of the Fort Drum Regional Liaison Organization. “That’s what it was intended to do. It was so distasteful nobody wants it to happen.”
Mr. McLaughlin said that the Fort Drum community is indeed concerned about the effects of the cuts, which don’t affect personnel but could mean 10 percent of 4,600 contractors being laid off. The Carthage Central School District and the Indian River Central School District both rely on federal education aid that could also be cut.
Mr. McLaughlin said there is room for reductions in the Department of Defense budget, but not by reducing all programs blindly. He said that a renewed focus on light infantry, the bailiwick of the 10th Mountain Division, would likely spare Fort Drum from serious cuts if the Pentagon were allowed to choose. Officials at Fort Drum have said that cutting decisions aren’t being made on post, but at the Pentagon.
“I think they have a future role to play,” Mr. McLaughlin said. “So I would expect less of an impact (at Fort Drum) given an opportunity to think this whole thing out.”
But how should Congress avert those cuts? Mr. Owens voted against a bill last week that would have essentially left the decision up to Mr. Obama; if Mr. Obama didn’t come up with the cuts himself, spending would revert to a House appropriations bill, which envisions the repeal of Mr. Obama’s health-care law.
Only one Democrat voted for that bill, and Mr. Owens said he voted against it because it was a purely political piece of legislation, unlikely to become law.
In the past, Mr. Owens has voted for legislation that was unlikely to become law.
“When I look at these things, I look at them and say, ‘OK, is this something that’s going to deliver a message that may move us towards a compromise?’” Mr. Owens said. “Or is it something that’s hardening positions? If it’s hardening positions, it’s really wasting time.”
Mr. Doheny, whose campaign declined to make him available for an interview on the subject, said in a released statement Monday that his opponent was weak on defense and abandoning the military.
“My opponent said he was ‘confident’ that these irresponsible cuts would never go into effect,” Mr. Doheny said. “Yet since the deal was struck 13 months ago, he’s voted against repeated attempts to avoid these dangerous cuts.”
Asked if he regretted voting for the Budget Control Act that set in motion the budget cuts, Mr. Owens said there was little choice. Many Republicans also supported the legislation, including Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California, the House Armed Services Committee chairman.
“Obviously, I’m disappointed,” Mr. Owens said. “We had to do something, or else the U.S. would have defaulted.”
Mr. Owens said the cuts are likely to be avoided, but during the “lame duck” session between the election and Jan. 1.
“I would be very surprised” if the cuts went through, Mr. Owens said.
Mr. Owens said Congress could come up with the $1.2 trillion to replace the defense and entitlement cuts with about $50 billion in efficiencies at the Pentagon, letting George W. Bush-era income tax cuts expire for those who earn more than $500,000 annually, passing the farm bill — which saves $23 billion — and following a General Accountability Office report that stipulates $100 billion a year could be trimmed from federal government operations. Indeed, he voted for an amendment to the Republican bill last week that would replace the sequester cuts with tax hikes on the rich and the elimination of subsidies to oil companies. The amendment failed.
Mr. Doheny, who has pledged not to raise taxes, also cited savings from a GAO report, and similarly said the Department of Defense could trim tens of billions from its budget and Congress could eliminate some of the $100 billion in subsidies to “some of the biggest companies and largest farms in America.”