Wednesday, May 22, 2013
WASHINGTON - With the convention speeches finally delivered and dissected, Republicans and Democrats will return to Capitol Hill this week ready to get some work done, if only to prove to voters that they are better than Congress' nearly single-digit approval rating indicates.
Bath Iron Works employees construct a Navy destroyer in 2005. General Dynamics, parent company of BIW, awaits reports on how the Obama administration plans to carry out mandated spending cuts on defense programs if Congress fails to act.
File photo by Robert F. Bukaty/The Associated Press
Protesters are arrested after blocking construction vehicles at a wind energy project in Lincoln in 2010. Wind power supporters and opponents are waiting to see if Congress will let federal subsidies for the industry expire.
Staff file photo/Shawn Patrick Ouellette
Well, probably not.
"With the presidential election so close and the partisanship in the House and the Senate on both sides, I don't see us getting anything significant done before the election," said U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-District 2. "And as for the lame-duck session, I think that depends on the outcome of the presidential election."
Congress left a mountain of unresolved issues when members skipped town in early August for a five-week recess. Many of those issues could have major implications in Maine.
For instance, without congressional action, the first installment of $500 billion in across-the-board spending cuts will be levied on defense budgets that support more than 8,000 contracting jobs in Maine.
The state's fast-growing but controversial wind energy industry is also warily watching whether Congress will extend valuable tax credits that helped make Maine the wind power leader in New England.
And then there are a dozen individual budget bills, a multi-year farm bill, efforts to reform the troubled U.S. Postal Service, debate over whether to extend unemployment insurance benefits for the long-term unemployed and the tiny question of what to do about tax cuts set to expire on Jan. 1.
A quick look at the congressional calendar -- which has the House in session fewer than 10 days between now and November -- suggests that members of Congress would be hard-pressed to resolve many of these issues even if they wanted to. And with elections less than two months away, members of Maine's delegation do not expect leaders to expend much effort trying.
"We are deferring the biggest issues of our time essentially to a 36-day period that constitutes the lame-duck session, which is preposterous given the enormity of these issues, not to mention the complexity and the profound impact that they may have on the future of our country," Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said as the two chambers prepared to leave town last month.
Here's a look at two outstanding issues, their potential impact on Maine and how members of the state's congressional delegation are involved:
Last summer, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle came up with a scheme intended to force the parties to work together on reducing the federal deficit, after a political stalemate led to a credit downgrade. At the heart of this agreement was a mutually agreed-upon threat for failing to act: $1.2 trillion in across-the-board spending cuts over 10 years, half of which would come from the Department of Defense.
That threat has thus far failed to bridge the partisan divide, despite seemingly unanimous agreement that the so-called "sequestration" cuts must be avoided due to the potential impacts on military readiness and defense contractors. Instead, sequestration has become yet another election-year issue, even as the first round of cuts -- slated to begin Jan. 1 -- creeps ever closer.
Maine's defense contracting industry is small compared to states such as Virginia and Florida, which happen to be presidential election battleground states. But defense-related companies employ thousands of Mainers. And at present, those companies are unsure where they will stand next year.
"That is the big question: we don't know how the (Department of Defense) plans to implement sequestration," said Rob Doolittle, spokesman for General Dynamics, the parent company of Bath Iron Works. With about 5,400 workers, BIW is one of Maine's largest employers.
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Sen. Susan Collins pilots a rescue craft in July built at the Hodgdon Defense Composites Facility in Bath for the U.S. Air Forces Special Command. She is accompanied Peter Maguire, co-founder of Rapid Response Technology, designer of the craft. Collins has expressed concerns about possible “meat-ax cuts” to defense programs.
Staff file photo/Gordon Chibroski