Capitol Hill brinkmanship imperils U.S. Navy

Newton B. Jones, Intl. President

Sequestration will hit shipbuilders, country hard

AS THIS COLUMN is being written, it appears that Congress will fail to halt the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration. These cuts will strip away about $500 billion from the U.S. military and an equal amount from discretionary federal spending on a host of necessary programs. Virtually every federal program except for Medicare and Social Security will be forced to make painful reductions.

Sequestration could not have come at a worse time for the U.S. Navy or the shipbuilding and maintenance industry that supports it.

The U.S. fleet numbers just 288 ships today, the lowest figure since before the outbreak of World War II. Yet the Defense Department must deal with emerging military expansion from China, Russia, and Iran, the war in Afghanistan, unrest in the Middle East, piracy at sea, and terrorist threats across North Africa, Yemen, and other areas of the globe.

The Boilermakers and the AFL-CIO Metal Trades have warned Washington for years of the seriousness of underfunding shipbuilding and maintenance in the face of such threats. The Brotherhood has made shipbuilding one of the key issues at our annual LEAP conferences. With a few exceptions from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, little has been done to ensure a rational and sustainable funding plan. Overall, Congress and White House administrations have adopted few measures for long-term stability and readiness.

Now, with major new funding cuts likely, many people are deeply worried.

How dire is the situation?

FROM THE MILITARY’S standpoint, sequestration is dangerous to national defense not only because of the sheer size of the cuts, but also because the cuts get applied across the board, without regard to essential and high-priority programs.

For shipbuilding and other industries that support national defense, sequestration will cause major layoffs and threaten the survivability of companies dedicated to national defense. Skill sets and technology capabilities don’t come cheaply and cannot be readily replaced.

For the nation, taxpayers will see higher development costs in the future due to interruptions of multi-year shipbuilding programs; the middle class will further erode; and America’s standing as a world superpower will be diminished. A vacuum in leadership will only invite aggressive behavior by those who have less to fear from U.S. military capabilities.

“I cannot imagine that people would stand by and deliberately hurt this country in terms of our national defense by letting this take place."
— outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta

For the Boilermakers and other trades, we will see many of our members lose their good-paying jobs and be thrust into unemployment during a weak economy.

And for our military, soldiers and sailors will see diminished capability, heightening the risks they take in defending our nation.

The spending cuts faced by the military are massive. In addition to the $500 billion stripped away (over 10 years) through sequestration, the Department of Defense is already absorbing another $487 billion 10-year cut that was implemented under the 2011 Budget Control Act. The double hit means national defense spending will be cut by about $1 trillion over the next decade, and an equal amount will be cut from non-military discretionary spending.

On the discretionary spending side, our country will see across-the-board cutbacks in almost every service provided by the government, from the FBI to the National Park Service, to Border Patrol.

Top military leaders worry, speak bluntly

MILITARY LEADERS AT the highest levels have reacted strongly and bluntly about sequestration. More than a year ago, Leon Panetta, the outgoing Secretary of Defense, predicted full sequestration would be “devastating” to the DoD and industries supporting the military.

At a congressional hearing Feb. 14, 2013, he told Congress, “Stop this constant uncertainty, this month-to-month situation where we don't know what the hell we're going to get. I cannot imagine that people would stand by and deliberately hurt this country in terms of our national defense by letting this take place."

During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey said sequestration could so hamper military readiness that it would be “immoral” to use American armed forces in a military confrontation.

“This would be the steepest, biggest reduction . . . for the Defense Department in history, at a time when I will personally attest that [the world is] more dangerous than it’s ever been,” Dempsey said.

Republicans ignore Obama’s offer to extend deadline

SEQUESTRATION MIGHT BE avoided or at least postponed to allow a more sensible plan to be developed under an extension proposal put forth by President Obama in the weeks leading up to the March 1, 2013 implementation deadline.

“If we don’t do our job, we get written up for it. Who is writing Congress up for not doing their damn job?”
— L-684 President Mike Patterson

Unfortunately, Republican leaders have refused to consider the offer. Some in the GOP appeared to welcome sequestration as a way to enforce cuts to government programs, even if it means weakening our military.

The GOP’s intransience on the issue was apparent when House Democrats sought to continue debate on Capitol Hill during the week of the Presidents’ Day holiday in hopes of finding a solution to sequestration. The Republican majority voted to adjourn and go home for the week instead.

This type of brinkmanship is entirely unacceptable when national security is on the line and our economy is so fragile.

The GOP has blamed Obama for coming up with the sequestration idea. It is true that his administration did offer the proposal. However, the concept was intended to force the two parties to come together and find a sensible approach to cut spending. Most people agreed that sequestration would be such a horrible outcome that Congress surely would do everything in its power to avoid it. But the special bipartisan committee created for this purpose failed to fashion an agreement. Such is the extreme dysfunction of Congress today.

President Obama decried the “partisan recklessness and ideological rigidity” that has prevented Congress from solving the current crisis.

Federal shipyard workers along with naval contractors are likewise angry and frustrated over congressional behavior. One of those speaking out during a CBS Evening News report on sequestration was Local 684 President Mike Patterson. While on the job for BAE at the Norfolk, Va., shipyard, Patterson told CBS, “If we don’t do our job, we get written up for it. Who is writing Congress up for not doing their damn job?”

All of us can appreciate Mike’s frustration with Congress. They are not doing their job, and the entire nation will suffer for it. The congressional members who folded their arms and turned their backs when final appeals were made to deal with the issue are especially culpable.

Americans should “write up” any congressman who refused to extend the deadline for implementing sequestration by voting them out of office during the mid-term elections next year.

If anybody should lose their jobs, it should be them.