Virginia stands to feel the most pain from defense cuts

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 10, 2010; A01

RICHMOND -- Virginia officials reacted with bipartisan dismay on Monday to Defense Department budget shifts that will cost the state thousands of jobs in coming years and will dramatically impact the economies of the Norfolk area and Northern Virginia.

Most of the immediate reaction revolved around Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates's proposal to close the U.S. Joint Forces Command. It is a major employer in Hampton Roads, including Norfolk and Virginia Beach, whose elimination could translate into the loss of 6,100 military, civilian and contractor jobs in the region.

But a proposal to slash the Pentagon's budget for military contractors over the next three years could also be as significant to the economy of the Washington region.

"Virginia is more vulnerable to this kind of policy shift than any other state," said Stephen Fuller, director of the Center of Regional Analysis at George Mason University. "Defense spending was our strength during the downturn. It kept unemployment lower here than in most other states. It kept the economy from crashing as far as other states'. It's also our Achilles' heel."

Virginia received $35 billion in defense contracts, supporting more than 530,000 contracting and associated jobs in fiscal 2008, Fuller said. About 70 percent of those dollars flowed to Northern Virginia.

He said three years of 10 percent cuts to military contracting, as announced by Gates, could swallow up as much as half of the economic growth projected for Northern Virginia in coming years.

"This is big stuff, and it's going to disproportionately affect Northern Virginia," he said.

Sharon Bulova (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, said the decision "would definitely have an impact" on her contractor-rich county. "I wouldn't say this would halt our recovery, but it's not going to help," she said.

In Norfolk, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) hastily called a news conference with two congressional Democrats, two congressional Republicans and the Democratic mayors of Norfolk and Suffolk, designed to show bipartisan opposition to the proposed closure of the U.S. Joint Forces Command, one of the Pentagon's 10 combat installations.

McDonnell and others insisted that their opposition was not just about retaining local jobs but about maintaining national security. They said the installation plays a key role in training military personnel to work together, boosting efficiency.

"To take and dismantle the Joint Forces Command -- an effective, efficient, low-cost joint command between all of our services -- I believe is extremely shortsighted and not in the interests of the United States, our national security or Virginia," McDonnell said.

McDonnell signed an executive order on Monday establishing a commission designed to save Virginia military's installations and find ways to attract new military spending to the state.

Despite the angry words, there appears to be little recourse for Virginia leaders. The cuts, part of a broad effort to reduce military spending underway since 2008, do not need congressional approval, Pentagon officials said.

At a news conference, Gates noted that Virginia lawmakers might be more willing to stomach the loss of the Joint Forces Command if they consider a possible silver lining of his restructuring: his desire to redirect the savings to other defense programs that could benefit the state.

"If I can add a billion or two to the Navy's shipbuilding budget," he said, "Virginia might come out ahead with more than it loses."

But opposition to the closure nevertheless spanned the Virginia political spectrum. Both of the state's Democratic senators expressed doubts about the decision. Sen. Mark Warner said in a statement that he saw "no rational basis" for shuttering the command.

Sen. James Webb, a former Navy secretary, said the proposal could be "harmful to the capabilities of the finest military in the world."

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said a move to cut the entire combat command must be subject to the "heaviest scrutiny."

But despite the effort to present a united front against Gates's proposal, some partisan cracks emerged within hours of the announcement. McDonnell and Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) accused the Obama administration of looking at the defense budget for cuts instead of at other parts of the federal government. The administration is "selling off our military at auction to pay for its social programs," Forbes said.

Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) responded that a reduction in contracting was inevitable after Republicans pushed jobs that should be performed by government employees into the private sector under President George W. Bush. He said, for instance, that acquisition officers who oversee other, private contracts should be employed by the government for accountability.

And he suggested that Republicans who have spent months calling for reduced federal spending should understand that the pain of trimming must be shared.

"Just as with budget cutting as a whole, when we look at where the impact is, it will invariable be felt by every state and in every district," he said.

Staff writer Craig Whitlock in Washington contributed to this report.

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