How R.I. and Virginia flipped on the defense sequester

Jul 10, 2013

The federal spending sequester has been little more than an inconvenience for most Americans, especially in states that do not have a plethora of defense spending.  As it turns out, the fortunes of Virginia and Rhode Island have been flipped due to changes in the economics of military-industrial complex spending.

The sequester cuts exempted cuts from Medicaid, Social Security and most means-tested anti-poverty programs, says Matthew Yglesias of ``It cut  equally from the military and non-military sides of the budget. But since the military is responsible for less than half of all federal discretionary spending, this means that military spending took a bigger hit than any category of non-military spending,’’ he writes.

Outside the cuts in Pentagon-related spending, the trims were not as severe, with Medicare benefits left intact but medical provider payments cut.  Yglesis opines that what liberals have been saying for years – that the defense budget and the health care system are alarmingly inefficient – has been largely proven correct.

Of all the states, Virginia stands among the most vulnerable to the $43 million in defense slashes that will make up the largest portion of sequester cuts. A study by Stateline showed that Virginia is the most vulnerable of any state to the defense budget sequester for two reasons. First, the northern part of the state is home to many defense contractors because of its proximity to Washington, D.C. and the big Pentagon civilian workforce. The other is because the Tidewater region of the state is host to the nation’s largest U.S. Navy base in Norfolk.

Well, that Norfolk base was once in Newport. The Atlantic fleet was moved from Rhode Island to Virginia in the 1970s. President Richard Nixon announced the move with little warning in 1973, shortly after he won a 49-state landslide reelection victory over Democrat George McGovern. In the Rhode Island U.S. Senate campaign that same year, incumbent Democrat Claiborne Pell won a come-from-behind victory over Republican John Chafee, our current governor’s father. (Chafee would win election to the Senate in 1976).

At the same time the Nixon Administration shuttered Newport, it also closed the Boston Navy Yard, which was located in the lone state to support McGovern.  New England Democrats saw Nixon’s moves as cynical payback for the 1972 elections and the Republican efforts to mold Virginia into a Republican state. (That worked in presidential elections until Barack Obama’s 2008 Virginia victory). The defense allocation process was even more political than it is nowadays. While the Newport base and Boston yard were closed down, the Philadelphia Navy Yard, represented by then-Senate Majority Leader Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, was left open.

Now, Newport has a small naval facility anchored by the Naval War College. The city was devastated economically when the navy sailed in the 1970s, but has recovered fairly well on a tourist and research-based economy.

Other states that will feel disproportionate pain in the defense sequester, according to Stateline, are Mississippi, Connecticut and Missouri.