NORMAN — Thousands of people in Oklahoma could be facing job furloughs if sequestration is implemented March 1.
Sequestration — automatic across-the-board cuts implemented when Congress doesn’t pass a budget — affects all federal agencies. In this neck of the woods, people think first of the impact on Tinker Air Force Base, but the imposed cuts are not limited to defense department spending.
“Sequestration happens March 1 and it will occur,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore. “The House (of Representatives) has acted twice. The president has not put forward a proposal... The Senate hasn’t had a budget in four years.”
Cole said the National Weather Center located in Norman would be among the many federal agencies affected. In addition, the Federal Aviation Administration and Indian Health Care would be subject to the cuts of about “8 percent across the board,” Cole said.
“I’m on the budget committee,” Cole said. “We can get this done.”
U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, is the ranking member of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee. He believes there would be “devastating impacts to Oklahoma’s defense sector” if sequestration goes into effect.
“The Department of Defense is now being told to prepare for sequestration and for furloughing more than 800,000 civilian employees,” Inhofe said. “In my home state of Oklahoma, all five of our major installations will see budget cuts. As a result, readiness and modernization will decline and many civilian personnel will be let go or have their hours significantly reduced, impacting local economies.”
Cole said until it happens, there is still hope.
“I think they think Congress will blink and that’s not going to happen,” Cole said.
Congress passed legislation raising the debt ceiling on Thursday. The debt limit measure had a string attached by House Republicans, however — a provision to withhold the pay of Senate or House members if they do not pass a budget this year.
“The Senate will finally have to present a budget,” Cole said. “We ought to try to make progress toward reducing the deficit.”
Cole said the current administration and Congress has tended toward last minute action.
“It’s been a Congress that’s not been capable of thinking ahead and acting ahead,” Cole said. “I would like to work in a more methodical and thoughtful way.”
Cole praised the Ryan budget, proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan, (R-Wis.) chairman of the House Budget Committee. Cole said that the total budget is about $3.3 trillion annually and that discretionary spending — such as the defense budget — comprises just over $1 trillion of that total figure.
“We’re trying to balance the budget on what is effectively one-third of the budget and it just doesn’t work,” he said.
Cole believes cuts must be made to non-discretionary areas including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Disability payments are on the increase as are other social service payments such as food stamps.
“A lot of people when the economy’s not working, lose their jobs,” he said.
He agrees with Ryan’s plan for block grants that allow states to administer their own social services rather than states receiving federal money with strings attached.
“These programs need to be looked at again,” he said. “We’ve actually passed things in the House. We’ve actually cut spending. Let states administer Medicaid. I trust the Oklahoma Healthcare Authority.”
On Jan. 16, Inhofe sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta requesting detailed information on the impact of sequestration.
“If we are unable to avert sequestration, then cuts will occur to military installations,” Inhofe said. “As Ranking Member of the Armed Services Committee, I am firmly committed to working with our military leaders to find reasonable alternatives to eliminate or mitigate the effects of sequestration.”
“It’s going to be an eventful few months,” Cole said.
Oklahoma is home to Altus Air Force base, Ft. Sill, McAlester Army Ammunition Depot, Tinker Air Force Base and Vance Air Force Base.