This week, more than 650,000 civilian employees of the Department of Defense, including upwards of 72,000 in Virginia, were forced to take the first of 11 unpaid days off due to the failure of Congress to deal with sequestration.
It didn’t have to happen.
Over the last several weeks, more Northern Virginians have contacted my office about the civilian defense furloughs than any other issue. I share the frustration of these dedicated federal employees who, through no fault of their own, are being forced to take an abrupt and unplanned 20 percent pay cut.
For some of these furloughed employees it means they must cancel a summer vacation or put off the purchase of a new car. But for others, the pay cut means that they won’t have the funds to pay their child’s college tuition, cover the co-pay for needed prescription drugs, or even put food on the family table.
Since last August, I have joined other members of our regional congressional delegation, industry leaders, and federal employee groups in calling on Congress to find a balanced alternative to replace the Republican sequester. Since last summer, I have consistently and repeatedly called on the House Majority leadership to cancel recesses and stay in Washington until we resolve the mess.
On several occasions, I took to the House floor to object to Congress going into recess without dealing with sequestration, only to have my microphone shut off and the session gaveled to a close by the presiding Republican member. My entreaties and the pleas of others in Congress repeatedly have fallen on deaf ears among the Republican majority.
If only the House Republicans would appoint negotiators to meet with their Senate counterparts to work out a federal budget that replaces the sequester with a balanced approach that includes responsible deficit reduction, we could end the furloughs and resolve sequestration.
The Senate passed its budget 102 days ago. It is a more responsible plan than the House-passed budget, known as the Ryan budget, which uses smoke and mirrors, pie-in-the-sky economic projections, and draconian cuts to achieve its nebulous goals. Among the many objectionable measures contained in the GOP budget are the privatization of Medicare, increased medical costs for seniors, reductions in the SNAP food stamp program, and provisions to cut needy families and individuals from Medicaid.
So far, House Republicans have refused to name any “conferees” to negotiate a budget compromise with the Senate. House Democrats have named their negotiators and their Senate counterparts are prepared to meet, but they need the House Majority at the negotiating table to move the process forward to reach a comprehensive budget agreement that ends sequestration and furloughs.
The House Majority’s intransigence on the budget and their refusal to replace sequestration has real consequences for many families in Northern Virginia and across the nation. It also will harm our local and national economies, and our military readiness.
Economists estimate that sequestration will result in the loss of more than 2 million jobs nationally, while the Congressional Budget Office projects that sequestration will cut our nation’s rate of economic growth in half this year.
When sequestration was proposed, we were assured that it would never be triggered because Congress would act responsibly and pass legislation that would include more strategic cuts rather than across-the-board cuts that have created the problems we now face. But the House Majority refused to consider responsible measures after many rank-and-file Republican House members balked, fearful of primary challenges from far-right candidates in their conservative congressional districts.
I have always advocated a balanced approach where we pair strategic cuts with revenue enhancements, while maintaining critical investments that ensure our competitiveness in the global economy. We should be using a scalpel, rather than a meat axe approach to budgeting and deficit reduction.
Since the Republicans took over the House Majority in 2011, they have repeatedly and routinely used federal employees as a punching bag. Our federal employees, who are on the front lines protecting and serving the public every day in our communities, have weathered more than two years of a pay freeze with a third pending, and have made sacrifices in pay and benefits totaling more than $100 billion to help reduce our nation’s debt. Now, more than 650,000 of them must face another 20 percent reduction in pay.
I urge every Falls Church News-Press reader to take a moment to imagine they are facing an arbitrary 20 percent pay cut, and how it would impact their family budget and their quality of life. Given the concentration of federal employees in Northern Virginia, many of those facing these latest pay cuts are our neighbors and our friends. They serve our nation with distinction and deserve to be treated fairly.
Gerry Connolly (D) represents Virginia’s 11th congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives.