National Economic Sequester Has Impacts Close to Home

I was enjoying pasta salad during an alumni networking event on Feb. 28 sponsored by the School of Social Science and Human Services, listening to more than a dozen Ramapo College alumni share their professional experiences and how their Ramapo education prepared them for graduate school and the workplace during a panel discussion led by SSHS Dean Dr. Samuel J. Rosenberg, when the notion first struck me. 

It occurred to me as I listened to the banter at my table that some of those present might be affected by the budget sequester, scheduled to go into effect the next day, Friday, March 1. In a rare example of bipartisan agreement, the cuts were part of a deal between Congress and the President enshrined in the Budget Control Act, signed by President Barack Obama in August 2011, following the loud and contentious debt ceiling negotiations. The BCA was a stopgap measure by the government to stave off a downgrade of U.S. currency and pay the nation’s bills by raising the debt ceiling. 

Pota Kripotos was seated at my table. Kripotos graduated from Ramapo in 2003 with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration and a minor in Economics. She was a management analyst in the human resources department of the Picatinny Arsenal in Morris County. Kripotos had been warned by her administration months earlier that if the sequester happened, she would be furloughed. 

“I may not be employed tomorrow,” she told me at the roundtable. “I’m actually scared about going to work tomorrow.” 

Picatinny Arsenal is an Army installation under the Department of Defense, one of 1,200 budget items likely to face automatic cuts during sequestration. At one point, during the surge in Afghanistan, Kripotos told me there was an urgent need for ammunitions.

“Soldiers were literally running out of bullets,” she explained.

Much of the needed arms were shipped from Picatinny. The Arsenal is primarily involved in research and development, engineering, and weapon manufacturing. Although the country is pulling away from active combat, the arsenal has been focused on the country’s military interests in Iran.

I’m not a supporter of war as a means of solving global conflicts, except as an absolute and unavoidable last resort. I’m also not in favor of our mammoth $678 billion defense budget, which is more than the combined budgets of the next 12 largest military-spending countries combined, according to PolitiFact. We spend five times more on defense than China. 

But we have made a commitment as a country to fulfill a number of domestic and global obligations, like adequately supplying our troops once deployed, and I don’t believe using the erase tool and wiping away a swath of federal services and programs indiscriminately is sound fiscal policy. Kripotos’ expertise could assist her department’s ability to ensure the right people or the best people are employed to carry out the Arsenal’s operations. But the Arsenal had to cut costs immediately as a result of the budget sequester. 

Sequestration is a budgetary mechanism that forces the government to cut spending, which fiscal conservatives like. It was proposed by President Obama in the summer of 2011, during the rancorous debates over raising the debt ceiling, and it was supported by both parties. Writing sequestration into the budget was a high stakes game of chicken, and neither side actually wanted the cuts to kick in. Modeled after the sequester signed by Ronald Reagan in 1986, if never reversed, the sequester will impose $1.2 trillion in budget cuts over nine years. In 2013, this means about $85 billion in federal funds will be withheld from agencies like NASA, The National Institutes of Health, Immigration Enforcement, the FAA, the FDA and of course the Department of Defense, among many others. 

Most of the cuts are in discretionary or non-mandatory line items. Exceptions include mandatory programs such as Medicare and Unemployment Insurance, which will cut benefits for folks receiving extended benefits by nine percent.  According to some sources, special education programs may lose $840 million. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that as many as 750,000 jobs may be lost if sequestration is not reversed.

Trimming fat from a bloated budget is probably not a bad idea. We all have to tighten our belts when our outgo exceeds our income. But I expect government leaders in charge of the fundamental task of developing a spending plan for the country to figure it out and “fix it,” to quote Governor Chris Christie. After five years of passing only short-term spending resolutions, which inhibits agencies from planning for the long term, Congress and the president should be concerned about the erosion of confidence among the public.

As recently as today, GOP leaders have set the stage, yet again, for another showdown scheduled for March 23, right before lawmakers take their spring recess. Stung by the sequestered defense funding that will reflect badly on them at home, the house passed a $982 billion stopgap or continuing resolution that will release funding for defense spending, while largely ignoring spending on domestic programs. It’s a pathetic scramble to undo unintended consequences of inaction and compromise. Democrats immediately criticized the bill and if a deal isn’t reached by March 27-the next self-imposed deadline to reach a budget agreement-the government is expected to shut down.

This is not good news for Pota Kripotos, the DOD or the USA.