Defense, domestic groups ally for last-minute drive to halt sequester

The defense industry is joining forces with health, education and other domestic sectors to wage a last-minute push to stop the across-the-board sequestration cuts from taking effect.

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The new approach from the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) and domestic spending advocates is an attempt to convince lawmakers who care about defense that they should align with lawmakers worried about cuts to domestic programs.

AIA and three groups representing health and education and other domestic programs are holding a joint press conference Monday to present a united front on the danger of sequestration, which would reduce the 2013 discretionary budget by $85 billion.

“We’re stronger united than divided,” said Emily Holubowich, executive director of the Coalition for Health Funding and co-chair of NDD United, a group formed to fight the non-defense side of the sequester.  

“It might be the time come together as one big ‘D,’ she said, referring to discretionary spending.

Both AIA and the domestic spending groups — NDD United, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, and the Association of American Universities — argue that discretionary spending is not what’s driving the debt, and that Congress must address revenues and entitlements to reduce the deficit.



Defense Secretary Panetta | Greg Nash

But advocates for defense and non-defense discretionary programs have largely worked separately in the past year as sequestration loomed, with most of the attention focused on the defense side of the cuts.

NDD United’s name itself is shorthand for “non-defense discretionary,” the catch-name all for non-defense spending in the federal budget.

There are advantages for both sides in joining together. 

AIA has an array of resources at its disposal — and has already waged a yearlong campaign against the sequestration cuts. 

The group sponsored the main industry study that’s used to highlight the potential for job losses under sequestration, although some groups critical of excessive Pentagon spending dispute AIA’s claim that 2 million defense and non-defense jobs are at risk.

By aligning with domestic spending groups, AIA can also make its case to lawmakers who advocate for greater defense cuts.

“With the short-term bump in sequestration, we needed to add to both the volume and breadth of our voice. And the best way to do that is to engage the non-defense discretionary groups,” said AIA spokesman Dan Stohr.

“They have been a little less forceful in their advocacy compared to us. And part of this was, they wanted to partner with us in order to get more involved in the fight,” Stohr said.

Stohr emphasized that AIA cares about more than just the defense side of the cuts, pointing to reductions in the budgets of NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Not all advocates for non-defense programs agree with the alliance.

Holubowich said her organization had a letter last year signed by 3,000 officials urging them to stop the sequester for non-defense discretionary programs. A new version this year, which has added defense to the letter, lost the support of some members who disagreed with the approach, she said.

But Holubowich said it was important to work together when both sides face equally disastrous cuts.

“We can debate spending too much or too little on the military or public health. That’s a different conversation,” said Holubowich. “What we’re talking about here is a deficit or debt-reduction strategy. Our programs on the discretionary side are not the problem, and yet to date they are the only part of the solution.”

Both the defense and non-defense groups are planning a major lobbying push on Capitol Hill this week, which comes on the heels of a meeting at the White House with top defense executives.

This is the second go-around for a looming sequestration deadline, as the cuts were initially scheduled to take effect Jan. 2. But the sequester was barely part of the December negotiations that were dominated by taxes, and Congress included a two-month sequester delay in the “fiscal-cliff” bill that passed last month.

Now sequestration is the only fiscal issue with a March 1 deadline, when the cuts would take effect.

President Obama this week called for Congress to pass a short-term delay to sequestration, and the White House released a fact sheet Friday highlighting how the cuts would hurt the everyday lives of millions of people.

Interestingly, the Pentagon was not mentioned in the White House’s list of cuts, although there’s been a major push by the military services to prepare for the sequestration ahead of the March 1 deadline.

Sequestration will be a hot topic on Capitol Hill next week.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff are making rare joint appearances in back-to-back House and Senate hearings Tuesday and Wednesday, and three Cabinet secretaries — Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and HUD Secretary Shaun Donavan — are testifying with Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter at a Thursday hearing.

Obama will also likely make fixing the sequester part of his State of the Union address.

Stohr said that even if sequester is somehow averted, the partnership between defense and domestic organizations is one that will likely continue into the future.

“This is going to be an ongoing problem,” he said.

“We are definitely into — no longer entering — an era of more constrained budgets. It’s going to be that much more important going forward to prioritize the things that produce growth.”