WASHINGTON – Maine’s contributions to our national security stretch from Kittery to Limestone and affect workers in every one of our 16 counties. The defense industry directly employs some 8,500 hardworking, highly skilled men and women here in Maine with an annual payroll topping $550 million.

Earlier this week, we visited Bath Iron Works and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery to express our strong support for all the contributions these workers make to our state and to our national security.

We also want them to know how concerned we are that, as a result of inaction on the part of Congress and the president, the defense industry is facing a severe budget cut — one that could have a devastating impact not only on these companies and the Navy, but also on critical programs nationwide such as education, transportation and important medical research.

There are two big problems, and they are slated to happen very close together.

On March 1, $85 billion in automatic, indiscriminate spending cuts, or what in Washington-speak is known as “sequestration,” will go into effect.

At the end of March, the government will shut down if the laws that fund the government for this year have not been passed. The government is currently operating under a stop-gap measure known as a continuing resolution.

If these indiscriminate cuts take place or a yearlong fiscal year 2013 Department of Defense funding bill is not passed, the effects will be particularly devastating to our national security and defense industrial base, as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the service chiefs have repeatedly warned.

The combination of sequestration and a long-term continuing resolution would effectively eliminate the prospect of a 10-ship DDG-51 multiyear procurement that would deliver the bare minimum numbers of multimission major surface combatants to support the president’s revised defense strategy and preserve competition in the large surface combatant shipbuilding industry and its 16,000 domestic jobs.

Failure to avert such an outcome could have severe ramifications for the nation’s ongoing shipbuilding efforts and for the thousands of talented and trained professionals at BIW, our nation’s premier shipbuilder.

The threat of sequestration is already having an effect on our economy. In the last economic quarter, defense spending decreased by an astonishing 22 percent annual rate, which the Council of Economic Advisers attributed to the looming sequestration deadline.

Additionally, a separate Aerospace Industries Association report found that a full year of sequestration would result in the loss of about 2 million jobs, both defense and nondefense.

For example, at Portsmouth, the Navy is prepared to cut the pay of its civilian work force by 20 percent, the result of a 22-day furlough, and to defer or cancel critical repairs to the USS Miami submarine, which was severely damaged in a fire last year. These jobs provide financial security for Maine workers and health insurance for their families. These are the Americans facing the uncertainty and consequences of inaction to reach a deal.

This week, we wrote to the president to express our specific commitment to a bipartisan and long-term deficit-reduction solution to avoid damage to our national security, important domestic priorities and our economy. It will require scrutiny and decreases in spending across all areas, including non-defense and defense discretionary and mandatory, as well as comprehensive tax reform.

Less than two weeks remain before sequestration cuts go into effect, but there is still time for a better approach. In our letter, we voiced our support for the following principles and made one request of the president and the congressional leadership.

Congress and the president must work together to avoid sequester and make the tough choices necessary for our country’s future.

Failure to avert sequester will devastate our military and our defense readiness.

n The meat ax-style spending cuts that are set to take effect March 1 are an irresponsible way to address our nation’s debt and federal deficit, and they would not solve our country’s long-term fiscal challenges.

Congress and the president must work together to enact a full-year fiscal year 2013 Department of Defense spending bill rather than allowing a continuing resolution for the remainder of the year.

Urgency and resolve are critical. We urged the president to convene a meeting, as soon as possible, with congressional leaders to conclude — not begin — an agreement to avert sequestration and set our nation on a sound fiscal path that both recognizes priorities and cuts our unsustainable $16.5 trillion debt.

Unfortunately, the clock is ticking and little time remains before an agreement must be reached. The uncertainty and discord of inaction threaten to further hobble our economy’s recovery. By allowing sequestration to happen, we are throwing away the progress we have made in the economy.

Members of both parties need to work together on a deficit-reduction plan to avoid the devastating impact of these indiscriminate cuts, set our country on the path to long-term fiscal stability and reaffirm to the American people that we can and will respond to the very real problems our country faces.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is a senior member of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, and Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

– Special to the Press Herald