Fayetteville Observer - Congressional representatives respond to your sequestration questions
The Fayetteville Observer asked people in Cumberland County what questions they'd pose to their congressional representatives about the budget standoff and sequestration. We then put those questions to Sens. Richard Burr and Kay Hagan, and Reps. Renee Ellmers, David Price and Mike McIntyre, all of whom serve parts of the county. Here are their responses. Note: Hagan's office issued a statement that addressed only some of them.
Why'd you wait so late to start working on a deal? - Dale Hambrick, Spring Lake
- SEN. RICHARD BURR (Republican): Because of Congressional inaction for the past two years, sequestration - the automatic spending cuts put in place by the President - went into effect March 1. While I was hopeful we could reach an agreement that would make more prioritized spending cuts, the truth is Washington has a spending problem. We need to begin to cut the size and scope of the federal government. I would prefer more targeted cuts that would address real waste, fraud, and abuse in federal spending. Unfortunately, the sequester plan was crafted by the president and rather than working with Congress to avoid the cuts, he moved the goal posts by asking for yet another tax hike.
- REP. RENEE ELLMERS (Republican, 2nd District): The House did not wait to address this issue. We passed two bills to replace the looming sequestration with targeted cuts from specific programs: one in May and the other in December of 2012. We did so immediately after it became apparent that the super committee (formed to find alternative entitlement cuts following the 2011 budget compromise) was not going to be able to complete its work and submit a plan to cut $1.2 trillion in wasteful spending. The Senate did not act and made it clear they would not vote on the House bills. Speaker (John) Boehner then engaged in talks with the Obama administration on a "balanced" plan and even agreed to increase taxes in exchange for meaningful spending cuts that never materialized. Our only alternative was to allow sequestration to take place and try to use the regular appropriations process to target spending cuts each year, in conformance with the Budget Control Act's annual targets.
- REP. MIKE MCINTYRE (Democrat, 7th District): I voted against the Budget Control Act to avoid sequestration entirely. As I stated in August 2012, Congress must act to avoid sequestration. If not, there will be massive defense cuts, that as a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, I am gravely concerned about. With N.C. being such a heavy military state, the last thing we want is to cut funds for vital programs that help our men and women here at home and abroad. And, we cannot jeopardize our national security by weakening our overall national defense.
- REP. DAVID PRICE (Democrat, 4th District): The truth is that we didn't. The bipartisan super committee was supposed to develop a plan to avoid sequestration by the end of 2011, and President Obama and Speaker Boehner came very close to negotiating a grand bargain that would also have avoided the cuts. What killed the super committee and the "grand bargain" was the refusal of congressional Republicans to support a truly balanced approach to deficit reduction that includes new sources of revenue in addition to carefully targeted spending cuts and entitlement reforms. For two years, President Obama and congressional Democrats have been eager to negotiate a balanced plan that builds on the $2.5 trillion in deficit reduction we have already achieved - the sort of plan that numerous panels of experts, including the bipartisan Bowles-Simpson commission, have called for. Yet with sequestration approaching, congressional Republicans refused even to negotiate to avert these unwise and inflexible across-the-board cuts, let alone to bring a plan to stop sequestration up for a vote in the House. Some Republicans were on-record saying they were excited about the cuts, even though economists warned sequestration would shave more than half a percentage point off economic growth and cost the economy around 750,000 lost jobs. In North Carolina alone, the cuts will suck nearly $1 billion out of the economy at a time when our state's unemployment rate is one of the highest in the nation. Why would anyone be excited about that?
Why is Congress getting pay raises when military budgets are getting cut? - Marilyn Wood, Spring Lake
- BURR (Republican): Congressional salaries have been frozen since 2009. I am also a cosponsor of legislation that would prevent members of Congress from being paid if they do not pass a budget each year.
- SEN. KAY HAGAN (Democrat): Congress did not get a pay raise. Our office is still examining how to best respond to the budget cuts including looking at delaying staff hiring, limiting staff travel and reducing the purchase of office equipment and supplies.
- ELLMERS: Members of Congress have not had a pay raise since before I was elected to office more than two years ago. The president did propose a 1 percent federal pay raise last year that would have included congressional salaries, but we have passed legislation that blocked those raises. Furthermore, in January, we passed the No Budget, No Pay Act. This legislation would require the House and Senate to adopt a budget resolution for fiscal year 2014 by April 15. If either body does not, members of that body will have their pay put into an escrow account starting on April 16 and continuing until that body adopts a budget. This bill would hold the Senate accountable for their refusal to pass a budget for the last four years - a neglect of their most basic duties. If we are to lead this country out of this recession, we must have the courage to work together to organize our finances and provide certainty for the millions of Americans who depend on it.
- MCINTYRE: Congress is not getting a pay raise - and has not for the last several years. I have always voted to stop member pay increases, and a portion of my salary each year goes to a scholarship fund for local students to attend community college. I voted against the sequestration bill because of my concerns about military budgets. It is essential that our men and women in uniform get the pay and benefits they deserve, and I have consistently fought for that and will continue to do all I can to support our servicemen and women.
- PRICE: I agree that pay for members of Congress should be cut commensurately with cuts elsewhere in the government. Congressional pay has been frozen for three years, each time with my support, and congressional staff are being furloughed and losing wages. At a time when our service members, seniors, families and children are being forced to sacrifice in the name of deficit reduction, our elected officials must sacrifice, too. Unfortunately, Republicans have refused to bring up a clean bill blocking the congressional pay raise. I'd vote for such a bill today. Instead, Republicans have used congressional pay as a political football, attaching it to other partisan measures instead of holding an up-or-down vote on it. Most recently, they forced a vote on a bill to block congressional pay raises that would also freeze pay for federal workers, which has already been frozen for years. These workers run our VA system, they make sure Social Security checks arrive on time and they work in agencies that keep our communities safe. Their pay shouldn't be turned into a political football.
Why are VA benefits being cut so much? - Jose Torres, Fayetteville
- BURR: I do not know specifically what this question is referring to, but any veteran who needs assistance with their benefits is welcome to contact my office at 1-800-685-8916.
- HAGAN: I'm working everyday to support our veterans and service members. One example is my effort to restore tuition assistance for these men and women. We must reduce our deficit, but sequestration is not the right way to make cuts, especially when the cuts hurt the brave men and women serving our country. We cannot balance the budget on the backs of our service members.
- ELLMERS: The Budget Control Act - which was passed in the House - protected military and veterans pay from sequestration. Congress had no hand in offering up VA educational benefits for cuts, nor have we passed any legislation to diminish VA benefits. In fact, the continuing resolution that was passed last week contained extra provisions to prevent the VA from feeling the effects of sequestration. This legislation exempts military personnel accounts and salaries from sequestration. It also provides a 1.7 percent pay increase for military personnel. It also prohibits funding for the implementation of enrollment fees for the Tricare for Life program that does not already exist under current law. All funding within the Department of Veterans Affairs is exempted from sequestration through this bill.
- MCINTYRE: I voted against the sequestration bill because of the indiscriminate way that cuts would have to be made, and unfortunately we are seeing that happen now. Our veterans deserve the benefits they have fought for, and I will do everything in my power to ensure that they are not diminished. I am a cosponsor of several measures relating to improving and strengthening veterans' health and education benefits and will also continue my support for an adequate budget for the Veterans Administration.
- PRICE: Military pay and VA benefits are exempt from sequestration. But there's no question that many other programs that benefit veterans and military families - from Tricare to tuition assistance to the furlough of civilian contractors - will be hit by sequestration's across-the-board cuts. In fact, because certain military and veterans programs are exempted, the rest of the defense budget is being cut by even more. We simply have to move beyond this "government by crisis" approach of congressional Republicans and enact a comprehensive budget plan that protects benefits for military families and restores confidence for the U.S. economy as a whole.
How do we stop the blame game? - Jennifer Lyden, Fayetteville
- BURR: Working together to accomplish things that will actually benefit the American people would be a good start.
- HAGAN: Gridlock has gotten in the way of common-sense solutions far too frequently. We can't keep going from crisis to crisis. Congress needs to put aside partisan bickering and work together, Democrats and Republicans, to solve the important issues facing our country today.
- ELLMERS: We are willing to work with the president and members across the aisle. In fact, many of the bills we have passed have had bipartisan support - some even including provisions from the president. But blame happens when no one is leading and taking responsibility. The president is the leader of the free world and holds the highest office in the land. He needs to stop campaigning and work with us to come to agreements for the sake of our country and the American people. My first priority since I was elected to office has been to protect the free enterprise system and give it the freedom to create jobs and get the American people working. History has proven that the less you restrain innovation and personal liberty, the more our economy grows. I will continue to make jobs my top priority and will not waiver on doing what is right, not what is easy or political, in order to turn our economy around.
- MCINTYRE: By putting people over partisanship and truly working to find bipartisan solutions to the challenges we face. As a member of the Center Aisle Caucus - a group of members from both sides of the aisle - I am committed to working together on solutions that will bring our country together, and my voting record has reflected that commitment.
- PRICE: A majority of Americans believe we should take a balanced approach to getting our fiscal house in order, making carefully targeted cuts that protect our economic recovery and safeguard investments in our people while also raising revenue and reining in the growth of entitlement spending. Sequestration fails all of these tests. I know there's a tendency to blame both parties equally, but only the Republicans have refused to budge. President Obama believes that all options must be on the table and has offered nearly $1 trillion in additional spending cuts in exchange for less than $600 billion in additional revenue from closing tax loopholes. Republicans insist that revenue can never be a part of deficit reduction, despite the fact that revenue has been a part of every deficit reduction agreement from the Reagan administration to the Clinton administration. Last week I heard a panel of economists speculate about what future historians will say about what we're going through 20 or 30 years from now. They are likely to be baffled, they said: How could a great nation do such damage to itself? How could political brinkmanship and rigid ideology go so far? In fact, many of my constituents are asking the same questions. We've got to stop lurching from one artificially created crisis to another so that we can focus on the real challenges facing our country: investing in our future and building a 21st century economy where people who work hard and play by the rules can get ahead.