By John S. Adams
Republican Congressman Denny Rehberg warned about 100 people gathered in Heritage Hall at the Great Falls College Montana State University that pending defense cuts could have serious economic effects on the Great Falls economy.
Rehberg, who is running against incumbent Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in this year's general election, held a listening session on the pending "sequestration" cuts scheduled to begin in January.
Rehberg said the House will vote on the defense appropriations bill later this week that contains nearly $500 billion in defense cuts over the next decade, which account for less than 10 percent of overall defense spending.
The spending reduction stems from the bipartisan 2011 Budget Control Act, which forced automatic cuts if a Congressional "super committee" was unable to come to agreement on overall deficit-reduction. That committee failed to strike a deal by the Nov. 23, 2011, deadline.
Congressional Republicans are now sounding alarm bells, saying the planned cuts will weaken America's military and cost the nation more than a million jobs.
"If we don't do something to derail this, it's going to have catastrophic consequences come January," Rehberg said.
Virginia Republican Rep. Randy Forbes, Chairman of the Readiness Subcommittee of the House Committee on Armed Services, addressed the audience via pre-recorded video. Forbes, who was originally scheduled to attend the event but was waylaid by the flu, said the looming cuts could require the United States to eliminate its entire fleet of 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles, which would put Malmstrom's missile mission in jeopardy.
"This would wipe out the 341st Missile Wing and all the full- and part-time jobs that go with it," Forbes said.
Tester campaign spokesman Aaron Murphy called Rehberg's listening session a "taxpayer-funded political stunt." Murphy said Rehberg was in Congress and did nothing to stop the Pentagon's plan to deactivate 50 Minuteman III missiles in 2007. That decision was made in 2006, before Tester was elected to the Senate.
Rehberg said Great Falls and Cascade County could be hit especially hard by the impending budget sequestration cuts because it is home to both Malmstrom Air Force Base and the Montana Air National Guard.
Rehberg was flanked by seven panelists who supported his opposition to the cuts, including Webb Brown, executive director of the Montana Chamber of Commerce;
James Carafano, who studies defense and homeland security at the Heritage Foundation; state Rep. Rob Cook, R-Conrad, managing partner of Intercontinental Truck Body; Roger Hagan, president of the Enlisted Association of the National Guard; John Kramarich, CEO of Waterjet Extreme Technologies; Cascade County Commissioner Bill Salina and Tom Spika, owner of Spika Welding & Manufacturing, Inc.
Critics of defense spending also spoke up at Monday's town hall meeting in support of the impending cuts. Air Force veteran Ray Jergeson, of Great Falls, said he wants to see the Pentagon eliminate Malmstrom's land-based nuclear arsenal.
"Supporters of Montana's nuclear missiles often fall back on the economic benefits for central Montana," Jergeson said. "Such argument is beside the point since strategic necessity has nothing to do with local economies. If it did we could never reduce or realign military facilities since every congressional district contains one or more facilities."
House Republicans are ramping up criticism of Democrats and President Barack Obama as debate on the 2013 defense appropriations bill gets under way.