U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright answered questions from constituents via telephone Thursday about the effects of budget cuts on everything from their livelihoods and veterans benefits to Social Security and Medicare.
Cartwright, D-Moosic, hosted a “Telephone Town Hall” to talk with residents of the 17th Congressional District about the effects of the federal sequester locally.
Cartwright began by explaining sequestration: “a 50-cent word for cuts to the federal budget” that came about in 2011 when, to avoid a default, Congress formed a “super committee” that determined a sequester — across-the-board cuts in every federal department — would be a last resort to achieve a $1.5 trillion federal deficit reduction over 10 years.
“They put in place a ticking time bomb in an effort to force both sides to come together and make a sensible deal,” said Cartwright. “But they didn’t come together, and the bomb went off.”
He noted the effects seen first locally at Tobyhanna Army Depot — furloughs that amounted to a 20 percent reduction in pay for about 5,000 federal employees and termination of 430 contract employees. He also said 1,500 Pennsylvania teachers would be laid off and 2,300 children cut from the Head Start preschool program. He also described the effects of cuts to the federal Bureau of Prisons and the Department of Agriculture, and predicted a detrimental effect on a fragile economic recovery.
Cartwright also said he voted against a budget proposed by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., on Thursday because it is “based on things we all know are not going to happen and should not happen.” He said it assumes the Affordable Health Care Act will be repealed but continues to rely on revenues from the act, and it would “turn Medicare into a voucher system.”
A Wilkes-Barre man asked Cartwright if he visited the federal prison where a prisoner allegedly killed corrections officer Eric Williams of Nanticoke in February, and what Cartwright could do to increase staffing so no corrections officer is alone with 150 prisoners.
Cartwright said he had not visited the prison, but he had met with union members while he was campaigning and described how visibly stressed they were.
“I don’t know what we can do,” he said. “It’s going to take money. … What is the highest outrage of all is that the sequester applies to (corrections officers).”
A 65-year-old woman from Minersville said she was worried how cuts would affect Medicare and Social Security. Those benefits would not be cut, said Cartwright, but customer service would be — and the backlog on processing disability claims will increase.
A man from Exeter asked why Cartwright hasn’t “championed” ideas to reduce the deficit such as means testing for Medicare or Social Security.
Cartwright favors raising or eliminating the $113,000 income cap on the Social Security tax, he said, and he’s still undecided on means testing.