Last week, Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King sent President Barack Obama a letter urging him to bring congressional leaders together to avert the latest self-induced fiscal crisis: sequestration. At stake are more than 1.2 million jobs nationally, including more than 7,000 jobs in Maine.
The clock is ticking. Unless Congress and the president reach a deal by this Friday, automatic cuts to defense and discretionary domestic spending will go into effect. Maine will be hit hard on a number of fronts. Jobs at Bath Iron Works and Portsmouth Naval Shipyard are on the line. The Department of Defense will furlough civilian employees numbering in the thousands in Maine. Programs important to families hit hardest by the recession including the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and education funding for children from low income families will be cut.
These automatic cuts were never intended to take effect. They were meant to be so bad that Congress would be forced to come up with a better solution. Unfortunately, many Republicans, especially in the House of Representatives, refuse to budge in finding a solution that is balanced — one that raises revenue to help ensure wealthy Americans and large corporations pay their fair share in taxes and that cuts spending more judiciously.
King and Collins deserve credit for recognizing the need for a more balanced solution. Federal revenues as a share of the U.S. economy are as low as they’ve been in any year since 1950. Federal spending on education, training, transportation, public safety, disaster relief and veterans will soon drop to its lowest level in 50 years as a percent of gross domestic product as well.
Much of the emphasis on reducing our federal deficit has focused on spending cuts. Of the $2.3 trillion in deficit reduction achieved thus far, almost 70 percent comes from spending cuts that will phase in over the next decade. That means $1 out of every $7 the federal government sends to states for things like education, road repair, police and fire protection, food safety, veterans’ health care, medical research and much more will be cut. Additional cuts to domestic discretionary spending will simply shift more costs to Maine, make it harder to balance our state and local budgets and increase job losses.
Senate Democrats have offered a more targeted and balanced approach to this latest round of deficit reduction. Their solution would avoid automatic spending cuts by setting a minimum tax rate for millionaires, closing other loopholes, gradually cutting defense spending and ending certain farm subsidies along with other targeted budget cuts. This is a common-sense approach that deserves a fair hearing in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. It is also an approach that is better for Maine since it avoids additional cuts to nondefense discretionary spending that would shift costs to the state.
Ultimately, bipartisan support is needed to accomplish a solution that replaces the automatic spending cuts or sequester with at least a dollar of revenues for every targeted spending cut. King and Collins have sounded the alarm. They must continue to build bridges while working with members of their respective caucuses to move beyond a one-sided approach to this and future budget issues.
We can cut the deficit without hurting our economy, making it harder for working families to join the middle class or limiting economic opportunities for our nation’s children. Doing so requires immediate action and the kind of leadership Maine’s congressional delegation has demonstrated. They deserve our support as they push for more balanced solutions to the challenges we face.
Garrett Martin is executive director of the Maine Center for Economic Policy.