Potential automatic cuts threaten more than military, progressives say

ATLANTA -- The so-called fiscal cliff of $1.2 trillion in automatic federal budget cuts that could be triggered in January is an unquantified threat not just to the military, but to industry and social services as well, say progressives.

“We’re not going to fall off a cliff. We’re going to run smack into that cliff,” retired Air Force Col. Dick Klass told a public meeting of about 50 people Wednesday at Georgia Tech.

Nearly all federal budget categories will share in across-the-board budget cuts from fiscal 2013 to 2021 if Congress fails to come up with an alternative fiscal plan in the coming months. They set the deadline for themselves, saying that fear of “sequestration” -- the blind cuts -- would overcome partisan fighting and lead to a compromise. Sequestration would cost the military about $500 billion.

The forum comes in response to a statewide tour by U.S. senators and representatives, who are visiting military communities to talk about the possible effects of sequestration. U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss was joined in Warner Robins last week by U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, 8th District U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, and 2nd District Rep. Sanford Bishop. Bishop was the lone Democrat on the tour.

The Pentagon and President Barack Obama are quiet on fine details of the potential cuts, said Klass, also vice president of the Veterans Alliance for Security and Democracy, a national group that leans toward progressive policies. That’s in a way a good thing, he said, because it means they’re not playing domestic politics with the defense budget. But it also leaves it unclear which, if any, programs at Robins Air Force Base might be affected. It’s even possible the base could benefit from closure of overseas logistics facilities if the work moves home.

Bruce Cotterman was watching the talk from the audience. He’s president of the Georgia chapter of the National Defense Industrial Association. His industry is flummoxed by the cliff.

“It’s hard to make personnel or capital decisions,” he said. “We have no way to predict what is going to happen” with the federal budget. The military cannot approve contracts until it knows its own budget, thus civilian defense contractors are not sure what to expect and how to retool for military downsizing.

Georgia’s defense contractors tend to be medium and smaller companies, Cotterman added, so the unknowns may be even greater for such companies that depend heavily on annual government contracts.

“From the Lockheeds down to the smallest, we’re hunkering down,” he said. “We don’t know what to do.”

One often-cited study states sequestration would cost more than 1 million aerospace and defense jobs. Klass, however, dismissed it as “nonsense” and put such job losses at 50,000 nationwide at the most. Klass said downsizing is necessary, but it must be done intelligently.

“There’s a serious problem if you just cut the budget and don’t adjust the strategy,” he said.

Klass argues “the most obvious cut” should be in nuclear weapons. Besides that, he said the armed forces could close some NATO facilities and cut some generals. “We have too many generals,” he said. And the Pentagon overall is “overbloated” with both civilian and military staff, he said.

After smart cuts, Klass said, the U.S. military will still be strong enough to deter its enemies. It may have been a perception of weakness that led to the first Gulf War, he said, but no perception of weakness is what affects al-Qaida, Iran or other adversaries.

State Rep. and U.S. Army veteran Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, said he is not optimistic Congress will agree to make cuts themselves. It’s more likely, he said, this Congress will simply push back the deadline and force decisions on the newly elected Congress.

“No one is going to want to take responsibility for these deep cuts,” Holcomb concluded.

But when it comes to the threat of sequestration, state Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, said she wants Georgia’s delegation in Washington to talk about the domestic side of cuts, not just the military.

If they take an approach that “insulates the Pentagon from judicious paring, then you are going down the road of shredding any semblance that we have of addressing education needs, health needs, job training needs, job creation ... that side of things is not talked about at all,” Orrock charged.

Georgia stands to lose nearly $39 million in federal grants to schools alone in the next fiscal year, which means losing 534 jobs, according to a study by the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee Majority Staff, a Democrat-led committee.

The forum was organized by Georgia Tech’s school of International Affairs, its Center for International Strategy Technology and Policy, and Georgia Women’s Action for New Directions, a progressive activist group.