Can Rhode Island Survive Sequestration?

Mar 3, 2013

Most Rhode Islanders by now have adopted a my-eyes-glaze over attitude towards a dysfunctional federal government that careens from one self-inflicted crisis to another. The latest is the so-called sequester, the arbitrary cuts in federal spending that loom because Democrats and Republicans in Congress can’t seem to act like grown-ups and figure out how to deal with taxing and spending.

This debate may seem like little more than the usual political scrum that divided government dictates when the Senate and the White House are controlled by Democrats and Republicans hold the House.  But this time the stakes are much higher than the hyperbolic rhetoric and cable-news shout fests that have dominated our politics over the last few years.

Credit US Capitol

After some very rough sledding, Rhode Island’s unemployment has dropped under double-digits. The job market is picking up as companies invest and hire workers. Major projects in the pipeline, including expansion at Green State Airport and building renovations at Rhode Island College, promise paychecks for unemployed construction workers. There is even a major development proposed near the old Jewelry District in downtown Providence on land cleared by the relocation of Route 195.

Now comes the squabbling in Washington. The sequester that went into effect last Friday will cost our state, if not immediately, then certainly over the next month or two. One example: Washington estimates that about 5,000 Rhode Island civilian jobs in military-related fields are on the chopping block. Current plans call for furloughs for these workers by mid-April, meaning four day weeks for these employees. Along with these furloughs come pay cuts of 20 percent or more.

Just think of what a 20 percent drop in your weekly paycheck would mean for you. Would it cause you to miss your mortgage payment? How about meeting your child’s tuition payments?

You don’t have to own a graduate degree in economics to understand that taking this money out of our fragile economy is going to hurt these families and our businesses. And that’s only one example. Slashing federal spending will reach into the pockets of teachers who deal with the disabled young, researchers at our colleges and universities, even the elderly who rely on meals on wheels.

So you say we need to reduce federal spending to address the yawning deficits that threaten the nation’s economic future. Take the defense budget. Our nation spends almost as much on defense as the rest of the world combined. For decades liberals have challenged bloated weapons spending. As far back as 1961, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, the World War II hero general,  complained that too much of our federal money went to what he called the ``military-industrial complex.’’

There are rational ways to deal with this. When we decide every 10 years which military bases and installations are outmoded, the government studies the costs and benefits with the base closing commission. Then Congress acts.

There are good reasons to trim Pentagon spending, but only after carefully considering the strategic needs of the military. Maybe we really don’t need thousands of U.S. troops in Europe six decades after the end of World War II. Perhaps being the world’s police force is a luxury Americans can no longer afford. And we may well deem that nation-building wars, such as Iraq and the endless Afghanistan quagmire just weren’t worth it.

But such decisions shouldn’t be made willy-nilly, with less thought than the average Rhode Islander gives to balancing his or her checkbook.

One sad fact is that Rhode Island and our New England neighbors have little say in the Republican Party that controls the U.S. House. That’s because there are no Republicans from any New England state in the House. About half the House Republicans hail from the red states of the south. Too many of them appear more worried about primary challenges from the Tea Party than governing in a manner that is little more than a partisan blame game.

Democrats aren’t blameless. And President Obama did agree in 2011 to the sequester process to avoid a government shutdown. Both sides thought at the time that the 2012 elections would lead to change, but voters decided on divided government.

Rhode Islanders are wont to cringe at the foibles of our state politicians. Did you ever think you would live long enough to see a U.S. Congress that is more dysfunctional than our General Assembly?