At the final debate of the 2012 presidential campaign, President Obama was clear about the budget sequester: “It will not happen,” he said.
But in the first State of the Union address of his second term, Obama was far less definitive about averting cuts that loom March 1, a worrisome development for a Washington region that is so heavily dependent on federal spending.
Obama referred to the sequester as “sudden, harsh, arbitrary cuts” that nearly everyone agreed were “a really bad idea.” Yet he dismissed the notion of preventing cuts to defense while allowing domestic reductions to go through.
“That idea is even worse,” Obama said, because it would “ask senior citizens and working families to shoulder the entire burden of deficit reduction while asking nothing more from the wealthiest and most powerful.”
Obama did not sketch any specific path toward avoiding the sequester Tuesday night, although he did call last week for Congress to pass a modest package of spending reductions and tax changes to postpone the cuts.
Area lawmakers split along partisan lines in reaction to the address.
“I think it was broad brush, but that was by design,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.).
Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D-Va.) said that Obama was “lecturing everybody, both sides,” but that he made clear that a solution needed to be divided evenly between additional tax revenue and spending cuts.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said Obama did exactly what he expected, “which was to lay out the principles for how to avoid the sequester.”
But Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) criticized Obama’s lack of specifics.
“People need to know: What is his plan to get out of this economic mess?” Harris said. “What is his plan to get us out of the sequester? We didn’t hear anything concrete tonight.”
The entire country will feel the ripple effects if automatic defense and domestic cuts kick in next month. Economic growth, already slowed by reductions in government outlays, could be hampered further. And this week the White House laid out a host of potential effects: thousands of children dropped from the Head Start program, a drop in Justice Department prosecutions, and cuts in food inspections and medical research.
The Washington region is viewed as especially vulnerable. An oft-cited study from George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis, funded by the Aerospace Industries Association, estimated that the District, Maryland and Virginia could lose a combined 450,000 public- and private-sector jobs because of the cuts, although some experts caution that those numbers are too high.
Some major federal contractors have retrenched in anticipation of the cuts, and the Pentagon has taken high-profile preemptive steps such as canceling the deployment of a Norfolk-based aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf.
Even before the speech, federal workers made clear that they were fed up by the status quo. At a rally Tuesday across the street from the Capitol, leaders of the American Federation of Government Employees and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees took turns excoriating Congress for its treatment of their members.
“It’s not the weather,” AFGE President J. David Cox Sr. said of sequestration. “It’s not death and taxes. It’s 100 percent preventable.”
Waving signs that said, “We’ve sacrificed enough,” union members chanted “Sequestration, no!” and “Jobs, not cuts!”
Obama plans to propose a 1 percent pay raise for federal civilian employees in his budget for fiscal 2014. Republicans have called for a continued freeze on pay rates, while labor leaders have complained that government salaries have not kept up with inflation.
Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.), while praising the speech overall, said he “would’ve loved to have seen him talk about federal workers, because I believe federal workers get unfairly and negatively hurt by this.”