JENKINS TWP. – Three congressmen, two political parties and one huge problem looming on the horizon for the United States took center stage during a regional television broadcast Thursday night.
U.S. Reps. Lou Barletta, R-Hazleton, Tom Marino, R-Lycoming Township, and Matt Cartwright, D-Moosic, discussed the fast-approaching March 1 deadline for sequestration on WVIA-TV's State of Pennsylvania program.
Sequester is the name given the short-term, across-the-board spending cuts set to happen next week if no deal is reached by Congress. If that happens, about $85 billion will be cut from the federal budget between now and Sept. 30 – half the cuts in discretionary programs and the other half in defense spending.
All three congressman said Thursday they believe Congress – the same group of Republicans and Democrats who have struggled to unlock the gridlock of political partisanship – will reach an agreement and postpone, if not avert, the deadline.
The sequester proposal was an agreement reached to allow the government to keep borrowing money to pay its bills – bills for things, said Cartwright, that Congress agreed to buy.
Barletta said the proposal was never intended to actually go into effect – it was supposed to be used as a tool to force Congress and the White House to agree on a deal to reduce the deficit. It was (Obama's) idea to make these cuts so painful that both sides would come to some agreement when trying to put a budget together, Barletta said. Sequestration says equal cuts to each department across the board. Obama can pick and choose where the ax falls.
The GOP repeatedly has proposed cuts to eliminate waste and fraud and restore the proposed cuts to the defense budget, Barletta said. Republicans have offered $85 billion in cuts for 2013, and Barletta has voted three times to replace defense cuts – about $1.2 trillion over 10 years – that sequestration would create, he said.
This could have been avoided, Barletta said Thursday.
Cartwright said the sequester consists of indiscriminate cuts.
It's the equivalent of throwing the baby out with the bath water, he said.
The House should be called back into session immediately, Cartwright said. He recently told The Washington Post the apparent lack of concern among his GOP colleagues means ‘It's like the airplane is going down, and we're taking a break to watch the in-flight movie.'
The sequester would not affect mandatory spending such as Medicare and Social Security, Cartwright said.
These will be blind cuts without regard for the value of the programs, he said.
Marino and Barletta said the GOP-controlled House has approved legislation twice – six months ago and six weeks ago – that would eliminate sequestration and call for cuts in specific areas and avoid defense cutbacks. They both placed blame on the Democratic-controlled Senate for the failure.
There's been lots of finger-pointing, Cartwright said. We have to get past who's responsible for getting us to this point and find a pathway out of it.
Cartwright called March 1 a soft deadline, noting that furlough notices would be sent on that date but would not take effect until March 31.
We've had so many deadlines, Marino said. This was supposed to happen Jan. 1, but we pushed it forward.
Barletta and Marino said the answer isn't to raise taxes; they said the Republicans want to see significant cuts in spending.
But we've yet to have any substantive talks about that, Marino said.
Cartwright said the time is not right to cut spending. He said the United States is in the midst of a fragile economic recovery and cutting spending now would only increase unemployment.
We're spending money we know we can't pay back, said Barletta. There's no common sense in Washington.
The three congressmen also discussed public school safety. Marino said he would favor armed guards in schools, but only highly trained people. Cartwright said he would favor police officers assigned to schools. Barletta said the issue should be left to each state and school district.