Gina Hamilton

Gina Hamilton

On Friday, unless Congress can pull an elusive rabbit out of a hat, and there’s no evidence they’re even trying, the longdreaded sequester will take effect.

The sequester is D.C.-speak for across-the-board cuts to everything except “entitlement programs” such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, plus interest on the national debt. These cuts were supposedly so dire and so painful that just the mere threat of them would force Republicans and Democrats to compromise for the good of the nation.

But the good of the nation hasn’t been high on anybody’s list lately. And after kicking the can down the road from Dec. 31, when the cuts should have gone into effect, here we are again at zero hour.

And once again, nothing has happened.

The Senate is trying to pass an alternative to the sequester, but it is likely to be filibustered and won’t be able to pass the Republican House anyway.

The background

The sequester was propelled by deep fear of the national debt. But the debt itself isn’t a real problem for a nation that can print its own currency, as long as the debt is actually being serviced. So far, it has.

Over the long term, it’s important we bring in more revenue than we spend, but during a short-term crisis such as the Great Recession, running a higher than-normal debt is OK and might well be a solid financial decision amid rock-bottom interest rates.

But never mind. The debt, which hadn’t been a problem for the GOP since the Reagan administration first blew it up, suddenly became a GOP talking point in 2010. A National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform — known as the Simpson-Bowles Commission after its two co-chairmen, Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles — developed a painful but more-orless fair plan (except for a peculiar measure to lower marginal tax rates when the opposite is needed) to slowly reduce the debt over time. No one liked the plan, Democrat or Republican. But with Republicans continuing to beat the debt drum, something had to happen, and fast.

Republicans would not vote to lift the debt ceiling unless it was attached to some kind of debt reform. So in the fall of 2011, a supercommittee was formed to find a bipartisan plan to reduce the debt. If the panel came up with a plan that could pass both houses, the GOP would lift the debt ceiling. If it didn’t, almost every area of government would be affected with automatic budget cuts in January 2013.

Republicans voted for the measure. Democrats voted for it. But in election-year Washington, the supercommittee failed to come up with a plan.

Which left everybody in Congress with a sequester they voted for.

The impact

If you work for Bath Iron Works or the Kittery shipyard, or you are a small merchant, contractor or restaurant who serves one of these two large employers, you’re probably about to take a hit.

Many civilian employees of military installations or people who work for the military industry will be laid off or find themselves working a day or two fewer every week.

Their income, which had been plowed back into the community, will be absent. If laid off, they’ll be on unemployment and other state aid. If they are furloughed, they may not have enough income to pay for basic necessities.

If you work for Acadia National Park, or run one of the tourist concessions in that area, you’ll likewise be hit.

If you are a special-education teacher or work for Head Start, or your job depends on having day care for your child, look out. About 7,000 teachers are expected to be let go because of the sequester.

Transportation matches will be slashed,. so Maine may not be able to repair its roads and bridges without a federal match. If you are a flagger or grader, or you sell asphalt or yellow paint, or happen to be a deli where a new section of road work is planned, you may be affected.

The Downeaster may have to cut its runs to Boston. Air traffic controllers may be furloughed, so expect slow airline travel and fewer safety checks.

Perhaps 7,000 meat inspectors could be laid off. It may be time to consider a vegetarian diet or growing your own pigs and chickens.

The FDA warns that it may not be able to continue with a drug review deal it had painstakingly set up for new drugs or repurposed drugs, so that people with treatable illnesses may die because the drugs cannot be approved for their conditions. Children may not have all the vaccines they need.

Block grants from the federal government will be slashed, so towns already under the gun from possible revenue sharing losses will now have even less in the kitty.

The Small Business Administration will lose funding. The long-term unemployed will lose funding. The school lunch program will lose funding. Food stamps might be pared back.

Superfund cleanups will be cut. Grant funds for higher education and student Pell Grants will be cut. Programs to help mothers and fathers recover money from deadbeat parents will be cut. Federal support for fisheries, ports, airports, the National Guard will all be cut.

For a state like Maine — which gets more money back from Washington than it sends in federal income tax, about $1.41 for every $1 sent — it’s a significant loss of state income.

In order to make up for those cuts, the Legislature will have to juggle already impossible numbers to make difficult cuts to vital programs or increase revenue to save them.

It’s not entirely too late to hope that Congress will do its job, but the signs are not good.

GINA HAMILTON, of Bath, is editor of the New Maine Times. She welcomes emails at [email protected]

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