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September 13, 2013

The shutdown that didn't have to be

by Rep. Susan A. Davis 

Here we are: Six months into sequestration.  It was supposed to be so painful that it wasn’t supposed to happen. But the pain is here and the American people are feeling it.

Despite the efforts of many in Washington, and after nearly eighteen months of believing it wouldn’t actually happen, sequestration is now the reality.  The government has had to deal with automatic, across-the-board cuts to almost every federal department.  But “cuts” is probably the wrong term, unless you’re accustomed to cutting with a bulldozer instead of a knife.

Americans were warned about how sequestration would have an immediate and significant impact on their daily lives, from the quality of their food to the safety of their transportation systems.  But Congress acted, permitting limited exceptions in some areas that might affect Americans the most.  Yet there are many more ways, countless in fact, that sequestration hurts all of us.  Many of these impacts just happen to be a bit harder for most people to see.

The involuntary furloughing of federal employees is a prime example. In July, over 650,000 civilian employees of the Department of Defense began taking unpaid days off – typically one day each week. Over 25,000 of these employees reside in San Diego. This de-facto 20% pay reduction is not the first time the government has forced federal employees to make difficult sacrifices.  In fact, these public servants have not received their standard salary adjustments for the past three years.  Sequestration and furloughs create uncertainty for these workers and send the message that they and the work that they do are not valued.

Without significant change, these issues will only get worse.  In a recent hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, the Deputy Secretary of Defense told me that unless we get rid of sequestration, not only will we have to worry about furloughs again next year, but that the Department of Defense may also be forced to start letting civilian employees go. 

Our economy is dependent on the success of a strong middle class.  So it’s important to remember that for the most part, these are middle class workers with middle class families who make government function for the middle class and everyone else.  

Aside from the immediate and sometimes debilitating impact the furloughs have had on federal employees, there are also secondary effects on our future and on the community at large.  For instance, by some estimates the defense furloughs are estimated to impact the San Diego region to a tune of $130 million.  Further, treating our civilian workers this way will affect the recruitment and retention of the federal workforce.  If the government cannot remain competitive with the private sector in employing the best talent available, we all suffer in the end.  

Of course, sequestration threatens more than just the Department of Defense.  Just last week, The Administration for Children and Families reported that 51,299 fewer children will begin Head Start preschool programs and 5,966 fewer toddlers will enter Early Head Start programs due to the billions of dollars arbitrarily cut.  Head Start funding is a critical investment in our children and the future of our nation. Who knows what these children may accomplish and contribute to America if we were only willing to give them a chance?

As our region is a key recipient of NIH funding, these random cuts will hurt our local economy and affect critical health and science research that saves lives. In 2013, the NIH must cut $1.7 billion from its budget.

The bulldozer of sequestration hurts everyone, whether or not they are a federal employee or have pre-school aged children.  Congress must solve this problem and to do that, we need your help.  The first step is to use your voice and urge the House leadership to appoint budget conferees immediately.  This will force everyone to come to the table and hopefully lead to appropriation measures for Fiscal Year 2014 that avoid a government shutdown or holding our economy hostage over the debt ceiling.

Let’s not let sequestration become the new normal.

This piece originally appeared in Uptown News.

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