Reniah Krause, 2, clings to her father Sgt. Joseph Krause in June at Fort Carson, Colo., after he and fellow soldiers arrived back from Afghanistan; John Moore/Getty Images
The debt-busting congressional super committee has yet to hold its first meeting, but the people in Patchwork Nation communities dependent on a major portion of the federal budget — the military — are rallying to defend their livelihoods.
Since Congress and President Obama cut the last-minute debt ceiling plan last month, defense officials, lobbyists and families have been raising the alarm about what a failure of the super committee could mean to the nation’s defense. That alarm has rung loudest in the 55 Military Bastion communities spread across 23 states.
Counties Buffeted By Change
These counties have seen their fair share of change in recent years. Reshaped by the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission, which closed many large bases and transferred tens of thousands of troops and their dependents, these counties also faced real troubles as the housing market in these communities struggled.
Military families who chose to purchase a home in these and other communities found themselves stuck when the price of their homes fell and redeployment forced them to sell at a major loss. NPR has been reporting on programs to help families who have been overwhelmed by the mix of circumstances in recent years.
“Military families call us in a panic talking about how they are not able to sell their homes, they have orders to move and their house is underwater and they just don’t know what they’re going to do,” Katie Savant with the National Military Family Association told NPR.
The housing situation has gotten so bad for military families that the federal government has made more moves to help bail them out.
Still, the Military Bastion counties had weathered the recession fairly well. As recently as June, the unemployment rate in these counties hovered at 8.8 percent, below the national average of 9.2. They have, to some extent, been helped by the return of soldiers from the war in Iraq.
The Debt Debate Seen up Close
But, as we have noted in more in-depth reporting, these places rely heavily on government spending to make them go. And the recent shifts in the political environment have left them in a very unsteady position.
First came the deficit-reduction deal connected to raising the debt ceiling. As Patchwork Nation reported earlier this month, military bastion communities are likely to take a disproportionate hit from the initial debt-ceiling deal. These counties have the highest percentage of federal civilian workers of any of the community types with some 4.5 percent of workforce.
The fallout from these cuts remains unclear, but already military leaders and communities connected to bases are expressing more concern over the part of the deal that demands that the 12-member committee to cut another $1.5 trillion in federal spending. If the committee fails, the plan then triggers across-the-board cuts that would particularly slash an estimated $500 billion to $600 billion from defense spending.
‘Doomsday’ Clock Set for December?
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has asked Congress to reconsider allowing automatic budget cuts if lawmakers can’t come to an agreement, calling the possibility a “kind of doomsday mechanism.”
“It could trigger a round of dangerous across-the-board defense cuts that would do real damage to our security, our troops and their families, and our ability to protect the nation,” Panetta warned. “This potential deep cut in defense spending is not meant as policy. Rather, it is designed to be unpalatable to spur responsible, balanced deficit reduction and avoid misguided cuts to our security.”
Panetta went on to say the cuts are “completely unacceptable” and vowed to fight them. But this is not a fight he has to have alone.
Major defense contractors and small-town officials are lining up to demand Congress protect defense spending.
In Texas, with its two Military Bastion communities and several major defense contractors, there has even been mention of the dreaded “tax” word if increased revenues mean less reduction in defense spending.
And conservative think tanks in Washington are also urging their more fiscally austere Tea Party colleagues to think twice before allowing the budget-cutting axe to fall too heavily on the Pentagon or its programs. John Bolton, who served as permanent representative to U.N. in President George W. Bush’s administration and now appears on Fox News, recently entered the fray asking the Tea Party groups to proceed carefully.
“The Tea Party has had a major impact on Washington, shifting the terms of the national debate from how much to spend to how much to cut. This is a significant achievement,” Bolton wrote, but then adding, “American liberty is only as strong as our ability to defend it, and a hollowed-out military is a disservice to both the cause of freedom and the Framers’ vision of the Constitution.”
The debate leaves Military Bastions in an interesting position. Politically, they have been reliably Republican – narrowly backing Sen. John McCain in 2008 and President Bush by 10 points in 2000. But these communities have become dependent on military bases and the jobs and spending that come with them.
Should the super committee start to falter and the prospects of across-the-board cuts begin to seem real, these communities may begin to push Republicans toward equally unpleasant options – toward reconsidering new tax revenues or looking toward popular entitlement programs such as Social Security or Medicare to achieve the savings needed to avoid cuts that could land heavily on the 8.4 million residents of the Military Bastions.
Lee Banville is an assistant professor of journalism at The University of Montana, a contributing editor to Patchwork Nation and former editor-in-chief of the Online NewsHour.