By Daniel Malloy
Congress' failure to reach a debt deal has the Pentagon facing $600 billion in cuts, prompting concern in Georgia about the potential impact on military families and the thousands of military-related jobs in the state.
The Department of Defense paid $12.6 billion in salary and wages in Georgia last year, according to U.S. Census data. Georgia also netted $12.4 billion in DOD contracts.
American troops' top concern when Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Georgia, visited Afghanistan last week was budgets, not bombs. Troops are worried about how the families they left behind, who often work on military bases in civilian roles and who depend on government benefits, might be affected.
"They know they're going to get what they need. We're not going to deny folks in theater anything," Chambliss said. "But family back home they're concerned about, from a quality of life standpoint, what changes are going to be there. ... It was very much cause for concern on the part of our military personnel."
Chambliss' trip coincided with the official failure of the congressional supercommittee, the 12-member group created to trim future deficits with the knowledge that if they could not agree, it would trigger $1.2 trillion in spending cuts -- half coming from the military.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, in a letter to Congress last month, warned of "devastating" results if the cuts go through. And for Georgia politicians, the impact hits home in a state with nine military installations, including Fort Stewart, the largest Army base east of the Mississippi River -- and other defense ties such as Lockheed Martin's plant in Marietta.
The fallback cuts were negotiated as part of the Aug. 2 accord to raise the federal borrowing limit and enact long-term spending reforms. With the supercommittee unable to agree on a consensus path, the unpopular across-the-board cuts to the military is increasingly likely to go through.
The cuts, which do not affect war funding, will go into effect in January 2013.
Assuming President Barack Obama exempts military personnel from the cuts, the impact on weapons programs and research would be substantial, and Panetta said the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program would be on the chopping block. The center wing of the airplane is built at Lockheed Martin's Marietta plant, which employs 300 people on the production line with plans to increase to 1,000 jobs by 2015.
Panetta also predicted job cuts from the budget squeeze.
"Rough estimates suggest after 10 years of these cuts, we would have the smallest ground force since 1940, the smallest number of ships since 1915 and the smallest Air Force in its history," he wrote.
In addition, Panetta predicted a 20 percent cut in the department's civilian workforce.
Georgia has seen military cutbacks up close in the past couple of years. The Defense Base Realignment and Closure Commission shuttered Fort McPherson and Fort Gillem on the outskirts of Atlanta, as well as the Navy Supply Corps School in Athens.
This year the Pentagon initiated a $450 billion belt-tightening that is already being felt in Georgia as Robins Air Force Base announced it is aiming to cut about 600 civilian jobs.
"We have a tremendous amount of economic growth and prosperity around those military bases, so obviously any cut to the military Georgians will feel," said U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, a Republican whose district includes Robins. "And I think the thing with the first round of cuts that you're starting to see that should hopefully open some eyes is when you cut the military, you immediately have higher unemployment."
The impact of the non-military cuts is less clear. The sequester largely spares Medicare, which is limited to 2 percent in benefit cuts. According to a Congressional Budget Office report in September, that leaves a $369 billion cut over 10 years to non-Medicare domestic spending. The White House and Congress would apply those budget changes as they see fit, and the Obama administration's Office of Management and Budget has not yet drawn up plans.
"There is more than a year for Congress to do its job and undertake balanced deficit reduction at least equal to what the supercommittee was charged to accomplish," OMB spokeswoman Meg Reilly wrote in an email. "In the meantime, government operations for this fiscal year continue as normal."
Fear of the sequester was meant as a motivator for the parties to agree on a long-term deficit reduction plan, but Democrats wanted more tax revenue increases than Republicans were willing to give.
In lieu of a bipartisan debt deal, many Republicans are backing a bill to simply reverse the Pentagon cuts. In a recent interview, Rep. Phil Gingrey, a Marietta Republican, said, "I'm sure there's some maneuver that can be done mitigating the cuts to the Department of Defense."
But Obama specifically threatened to veto such an effort and has Democrats on his side.
Atlanta U.S. Rep. John Lewis, for one, said the Panetta letter was overly alarmist.
"The leadership of the Pentagon, whether it's Democrat or Republican has always said, "We need more,'" Lewis said.
"If we're going to withdraw our forces out of the Middle East, especially Afghanistan or Iraq, just maybe we won't need as many dollars as we've been talking about programming."