Armed With Excuses, Lawmakers Head Home to Sequester Complaints

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP File Photo

As lawmakers were preparing to go back home to their districts for a two-week recess, many were already getting an earful of grievances from constituents about the sequester’s impact — and were bracing to hear far more in meetings and town halls.

“We have five major military installations plus the National Guard. They are all very sensitive to it,” said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, who is continuing his uphill effort to grant more flexibility to ease the pain of the cuts to defense. “I talk to them every day; I don’t have to go back home to hear about it. I tell them that I’m just as uncertain as everyone else is.”

At the northeastern tip of the country, where border security and shipyards are an issue, Maine Sens. Susan Collins, a Republican, and Sen. Angus King, an independent, hear constantly about the sequester’s effect.

“It’s terrible,” King said in an interview Thursday. “People are going to get one-day-a-week furloughs for the next 22 weeks, which is going to devastate families. It’s about a 20 percent pay cut, and people have to pay their mortgages. We are starting to see other impacts in the state and it’s unconscionable that we’ve allowed this to happen.”

Financial problems can also impact a worker's security clearance. Collins said that she is trying to ensure that individuals who suffer financial setbacks due to sequestration do not lose their clearances, which are crucial for continuing to work. 

Interviews with two dozen Senate and House members, including Republicans and Democrats, revealed a long list of specific complaints about the effects back home. Lawmakers are hearing concerns about the impact of furloughs and program constraints on civilian defense employees, National Guard members, Head Start students, community health centers, border-security agents, forestry services, shipyards, air-traffic control towers, military contractors, maintenance depots, manufacturers, bases, installations and even small businesses that are fearful about the spillover effects, such as contracting local economies.

The conventional wisdom in Washington before the sequester cuts kicked in was that if anything could undo them, it would be overwhelming public pressure.

Lawmakers say they are getting a taste of that now, but that it is targeted and nuanced. And although most lawmakers interviewed said they are frustrated with the status quo, none said they are sensing a groundswell — and that means they see little opportunity to address the sequester until the next fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1.

“I’m not sure that there is much that we can do that will affect FY '13,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.

Only a few of the lawmakers interviewed said they were not hearing much blowback about the sequester back home.

“To be very honest, most of everything I hear is that people are glad we are actually finally cutting spending,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who added that there are some military bases, defense contractors and an air tower impacted, which he’s hearing about.

“In general, everybody else in Georgia has been having to cut their budgets for years because of the recession. I think they are glad we are finally doing something about spending. So it’s caused some consternation but it’s overall not a lot of phone calls.”

Because the sequester seems so set, lawmakers already have their explanations to voters prepared. They include talking about the efforts they made to substitute the sequester with more-sensible cuts, the flexibility given to affected agencies under the recent continuing resolution to fund the government through the end of the fiscal year, and the optimism they have about opportunities to head off the across-the-board cuts for fiscal 2014. Others just blame Obama.

Among those interviewed, only Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., took some responsibility. “We are all culpable. So it’s not someone else’s fault,” he said. 

At the same time, Cardin admitted he sees any changes this year as increasingly doubtful. “It will be very challenging. I don’t see an opportunity right now, but it could happen. We are not giving up. The answer is, it’s a longshot,” he said.

Rebecca Kaplan and Amy Harder contributed to this report.

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