WASHINGTON – As of this Friday, March 1, thousands of soldiers and civilian workers at El Paso’s Fort Bliss might have to weather fallout from the ongoing federal debt dispute.
Or will they? They answer, as it turns out, depends on who’s talking. One side forecasts a squall. The other predicts a hurricane.
Local leaders say they are confident that they would be able to handle sequestration cuts without significantly cutting workers at the base. National military leaders are far less optimistic, asserting the cuts would have a crippling effect on military bases and extend the hardship into neighboring communities such as El Paso.
Fort Bliss spokesman Maj. Joe Buccino said the Army post would be able to contain the damage by reducing the number of training operations and eliminating some temporary contracts, according to an internal sequestration impact report. He said officials have not yet determined how much of the post’s total budget would be hacked if the cuts take effect, but are trying to engineer cuts that could be restored if the money came back.
“We’re trying to do it in a way that’s reversible,” Buccino said.
Time is slipping away for members of Congress to find a solution. The roughly $85 billion across-the-board cuts, known as sequestration, will take effect on Friday unless Congress takes action – they’ll only have four days after their week’s vacation ends on Monday.
But El Paso’s new congressman, Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, isn’t worried.
“They will be able to manage cuts from sequestration without limiting their effects in the community,” O’Rourke said.
He said the most important operations to the community, including permanent civilian workers and contracts, would be spared even if Congress blows its deadline. O’Rourke said he is basing his conclusions on talks with Major Gen. Dana Pittard, the commander at Fort Bliss.
But national military leaders say the cuts are all but a death blow for cities that thrive off of nearby bases.
“We have billions of dollars of impact on surrounding communities,” Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno said in an interview after testifying to Congress. “It will impact all of the small businesses around that installation, and I think it will have a significant impact on their economies.”
Leaders don’t foresee any immediate base closures, but Odierno said some bases might be closed later on if the long-term cuts take effect.
Regardless, some jobs likely will be gone for good. Eight combat brigades are slated for elimination from 2013 by 2021 under the Budget Control Act – meaning as many as 40,000 fewer soldiers, according to information provided by House Armed Services Committee staff. It’s still not certain who will get hit or how hard. The committee has been compiling data about the possible effects of the cuts.
Some plans are on the table to avoid sequestration and keep the military intact. Senate Republicans have proposed a plan aimed at maintaining troop levels, which would be paid for by laying off some members of the civilian work force until the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30, along with freezing congressional pay.
Some positions at Fort Bliss likely would be included in those cutbacks, although the precise effects are not yet clear.
Senate Democrats proposed a $110-billion package that would include half tax increases and half spending cuts, which will almost certainly get shot down in the House.
Clark Murdock, a senior defense adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, agreed military spending cuts would have a negative rippling effect on communities such as El Paso.
“The defense budget is large enough that when it goes through a contraction of actual dollars going out, it affects demand on a basic level,” Murdock said.
The bleakest prediction came from the highest-ranking officer. In a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Feb. 12, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey said that, on a 1 to 10 scale, sequestration cuts would pose a 10 – the highest possible threat – to military readiness. That, he said, could make the U.S. more vulnerable to threats from other countries.
“We could find ourselves, as I describe it, open to coercion,” Dempsey said.