If Congress fails to deal with the looming threat of sequestration, March 1 will be devastating for millions of Americans. That will be the day that automatic, across-the-board spending cuts begin to take effect — cutting $1.2 trillion from defense and nondefense programs over the next 10 years.
Sequestration was scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, but the American Taxpayer Relief Act delayed it until March 1. Time is running out, and we must find a way to work together to reduce our deficit and avoid sequestration. Any approach to the deficit should include an assessment of our national needs along with a fair and comprehensive deficit-reduction plan. Setting arbitrary targets through sequestration will only serve to threaten many programs that provide important services to people in Maryland and across the country.
Sequestration is not just about numbers; it is about Americans, and if it happens, it will take a terrible human toll. I have met with federal employees from across Maryland, and there is great alarm at the thought of sequestration — not just because of a loss of wages, but because Americans depend on what our federal workers do.
At a recent town hall meeting, a National Institutes of Health employee asked me how sequestration would affect lifesaving research into such diseases as cancer, Parkinson’s disease, AIDS and other serious illnesses. This employee was right to be concerned; sequestration could have a profoundly destructive effect on research into important medical and scientific advances.
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, sequestration for fiscal 2013 alone would require across-the-board cuts of approximately $42.7 billion in defense and another $42.7 billion in nondefense spending. Cuts in government services would be felt by everyone, from the Department of Agriculture’s farm support and food safety inspection programs to payments to Medicare providers and cuts in scientific research and energy assistance programs. It also would cause serious harm to our military and, I believe, jeopardize our nation’s ability to respond to foreign threats.
Sequestration does not bode well for Maryland, home to 60 nonmilitary federal facilities and 17 military facilities. More than 300,000 Marylanders work for the federal government in civilian and military jobs, making our state particularly vulnerable to sequestration. The Maryland Board of Revenue Estimates projects that sequestration could mean a loss of 12,600 jobs, resulting in a reduction of Maryland’s wage and salary base by $2.5 billion.
Maryland faces major education funding cuts that would affect both teachers and children. The Board of Revenue Estimates projects that our state could lose $55 million in education funding in the upcoming year. That could mean that as many as 900 children would not be able to enroll in Head Start, and the state could lose 500 teachers, along with many other serious cuts to educational programs.
Such across-the-board cuts would seriously harm our nation’s economy. In fact, the recent Gross Domestic Product report for the fourth quarter of 2012 showed a 0.1 percent decline in our economy, due primarily to reductions in government spending, particularly in defense.
Sequestration can be avoided if we act now. We already took significant steps to cut spending when we passed the Budget Control Act of 2011, reducing spending by $1.5 trillion. In January, we achieved approximately $600 billion in additional revenue when we passed the American Taxpayer Relief Act. We are two-thirds of the way there.
We still need approximately $1.4 trillion in deficit reduction, which I believe is achievable. Sequestration is a meat-ax approach to our deficit problem that would harm future economic growth. Instead, we should follow a more balanced approach and pursue a budget plan that includes both increased revenues and decreased spending.
On the revenue side, we need to look at ending tax preferences for the oil and gas industries, limiting itemized deductions for wealthier families and closing tax loopholes that allow some to avoid paying their fair share of taxes. On the spending side, we need to bring down health care costs, which will create significant savings. We also have to factor in significant reductions in spending as we withdraw our troops from Afghanistan and reorganize our military to better face the threat of terrorism.
The American people are tired of these budget showdowns and stopgap measures. It is time to develop comprehensive and fair solutions that will solve our long-term deficit problems. We can choose to stay on the same, divisive path, or we can choose to work together in the spirit of mutual respect and compromise on a comprehensive budget deal. I hope we make the right choice — to work together — because our future depends on it.
Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, is a member of the Senate’s Environment & Public Works, Finance, Foreign Relations and Small Business and Entrepreneurship committees. His website is cardin.senate.gov. You can follow him on Twitter @SenatorCardin.