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Durbin, Enyart sound alarm bells about sequestration and Scott Air Force Base

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 25, 2013 - U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart sounded the alarm bells about the impact of impending budget cuts on Scott Air Force Base, one of the metro area’s largest employers.

“Sequestration” is the short-hand term to describe loomingautomatic budget cuts, which include $500 billion in defense spending and $700 billion for non-defense spending over 10 years. Without congressional action, the cuts are set to go into effect on March 1.

At a press conference at Scott Field Heritage Air Park, Durbin, D-Ill., and Enyart, D-Belleville, told reporters that unless Congress acts, roughly 4,500 civilian employees at Scott Air Force Base would be furloughed. Both lawmakers cautioned that such cuts could mean a loss of millions of dollars to the region's economy.

“There are exemptions for military personnel and critical war fighting,” Durbin said. “But when it gets right down to it, many civilian employees will be getting notices… and be facing one day of furlough each week. And it might get worse.”

The White House issued state-by-state projections of the fallout of the automatic budget cuts. In Illinois, 14,000 civilian Department of Defense employees would be furloughed, reducing gross pay by $83.5 million.

Karen Petitt, a public affairs officer at Scott Air Force Base, said furloughs for civilian employees would begin in mid-April if sequestration isn’t averted. She added that the Department of Defense set the guidelines on which employees would be affected.

Enyart and Durbin said “mission critical” employees with jobs related to national security would be exempted. Petitt said that could include civilians deployed to combat zones. It could also include civilians necessary “to provide safety of life or property," which encompasses professionals in 24-hour inpatient care or emergency services, civilian police or security guards, or civilian firefighters.

Durbin and Enyart estimated that if 4,500 civilian employees have to once-a-week furloughs for the remainder of the fiscal year, it could cause their take-home pay to shrink 20 percent. That could, according to Durbin, result in an estimated $28 million loss for the region’s economy.

Durbin went onto say that some defense-related cuts go toward “military readiness and training,” which he said could transcend economic impact.

“Training and readiness equals survival,” Durbin said. “I’m telling you, we ought to think twice about this. We ought to have a bipartisan approach that reduces the deficit but not in this fashion.”

Before the press conference, both lawmakers were briefed by Scott Air Force Base's military leadership. That included Col. David Almand, the base's commander, Gen. Paul Selva, the head of the base’s air mobility command, and Gen. Bill Fraser, the head of the U.S. Transportation Command.

Enyart, the former head of the Illinois National Guard, said those officials asked for "the flexibility to move money around and make” cuts without “jeopardizing readiness, without jeopardizing safety of air crews and without jeopardizing our national defense.”

“I was not in Congress when the sequestration plan – or lack of a plan – was adopted. But now I’ve been elected to Congress, I certainly plan to work to resolve this,” said Enyart, who was elected last November. “And as the senator pointed out, what we need to do is get together in a bipartisan fashion and adopt a sensible, common-sense plan. As the senator said, we can’t just slash 9 percent off our mortgage payment and 9 percent off our utility bill. It doesn’t work that way.”

As on solution to the debt, Durbin mentioned the so-called “Buffett rule,” which would impose a minimum tax on the nation's wealthiest Americans.  The rule -- named after billionaire businessman Warren Buffett -- would offset sequestration cuts through 2014. 

“The Buffett rule – which we’ll vote on in the Senate perhaps tomorrow or the day after – says there will be a basic, minimum tax rate so you can’t escape it," Durbin said. "So it’s basically going to say to people like Warren Buffett that you’re going to pay as much as your secretary when it comes to the rate of your income.”

But that type of measure -- as well as other Democratic tax proposals -- may have a difficult time of making it through Congress, especially since Republicans control the House of Representatives and the Senate lacks enough Democrats to stop a filibuster.

Some critics -- primarily Republicans -- have contended that President Barack Obama is exaggerating the impact of sequestration or trying to shift the blame for its creation.

"President Obama is determined to win at all cost, blame anyone but himself, and ignore his responsibilities to lead the American people," said U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, in a statement last week. "House Republicans have already passed two bills to avert the Obama sequester and the Democratic-led Senate has failed to act altogether. Instead of trying to blame others, it’s past time the president put partisan rhetoric aside and led the American people.”  

For his part, Durbin noted that sequestration was part of a bipartisan deal to raise the federal debt ceiling. He dubbed the cuts as a "terrible alternative" to destroying the "full faith and credit of the United States."

But he added that the cuts were supposed to be so bad that Congress would be motivated to prevent them.

“I’ve been trying to follow the narrative from the other side. It goes something like this: ‘Obama did it. This was Obama’s idea.’ Forgetting that they voted for it as I did,” said Durbin in response to a question about the scope of sequestration’s impact. “It was a bipartisan idea. It never would have gone to the president for his signature. And the next thing they said is, ‘It won’t be that bad. It’s just a small percentage.’"

"And then say ‘if there’s any pain from this, the president can help avoid it,'" Durbin added. "It’s not the type of dialogue that leads to a reasonable, bipartisan solution.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.