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Congress must strike a 'grand bargain'--now

January 25, 2013 12:10 am


A soaring deficit puts added pressure on Barack Obama and Congress to seek a budget deal in the coming weeks.


--Congress rang in the new year with a political compromise to avoid what had come to be known as the "fiscal cliff." While we avoided a tax increase on most Americans, we also pushed off once again many of the tough decisions required to get our country back on a responsible fiscal path.

If Congress and the White House are unable to agree on debt-reduction measures by March, America will face a triple threat: a congressional vote to raise the debt ceiling, across-the-board spending cuts required by the sequester, and the expiration of the law that keeps the government funded.

I am convinced the political dysfunction in Washington continues to drag down our economic recovery. It has added to consumer and business uncertainty, and it's keeping the American economy in low gear.

The indecision also poses a real and significant threat to our national security. As it is, the Pentagon is operating on last year's budget. And this white-knuckle game of chicken over the automatic sequester cuts, in particular, could require the Pentagon to furlough workers, lay off contract employees, ground military aircraft, and call back to port.

If Congress fails to step up, these fiscal challenges will converge in a "perfect storm" where Pentagon budget planners will be required to find billions of dollars in savings almost immediately, with hardly any flexibility to prioritize the cuts.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta appropriately has ruled out cuts to ongoing combat operations in Afghanistan, as well as cuts in pay and benefits for our war-fighters. But that means automatic sequester cuts will dig deeper into other programs.

Of deep concern to me is the prospect of layoffs for federal employees and private sector contractors, many of whom are performing cutting-edge work nearby at the Naval Surface Warfare Center at Dahlgren.

Budget indecision and the prospect of furloughs or layoffs could well drive many of these highly skilled employees into the private sector. These employees have spent years honing their expertise in the development and integration of complex war-fighting systems. Taxpayers, too, have invested a lot in the careers of these employees.

I don't know how Virginia's defense contractors can be expected to make smart decisions about their businesses if they lack clear guidance from us on the short- and mid-range budget outlook. It's simply smart business practice to provide this workforce some certainty, or else history tells us we'll all end up paying more in the long run.

The sequester was intentionally designed to be an unacceptable financial tool--an option that no reasonable policymaker would ever willingly choose to use. But by continually pushing off the day of reckoning, we essentially have further amplified its potentially destructive impact: Even deeper cuts may be required over an even shorter budget period.

The sequester's impact on military readiness could be disastrous. We will have fewer resources to keep our pilots trained or our warship crews capable of full combat operations. It will rob Army units of important training resources as they prepare to deploy for combat.

That's why I continue to push for a broad, bipartisan approach that, once and for all, strikes a responsible "grand bargain" on all of these fiscal challenges. If we can summon the political will, there is a path forward to begin reining in our nation's deficits and debt without lurching recklessly from crisis to crisis.

Over the past two years, our bipartisan "Gang of Six" in the Senate managed to move within sight of the goal line on a grand bargain, based on the framework spelled out by National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, commonly called the Simpson-Bowles Commission. We produced a balanced package of spending cuts, improvements to strengthen Social Security and Medicare, and broad-based tax reforms to generate additional revenue by making our tax code flatter and fairer.

Ultimately, congressional dysfunction and partisan politics short-circuited the work of our Gang of Six. But I firmly believe that we can solve our deficit and debt challenges without threatening our national security, holding back our economic recovery, or sacrificing investments in programs that ultimately will help our economy grow and create jobs.

As Congress prepares to enter yet another round of discussions about federal spending, the automatic sequester cuts, and raising the debt ceiling, I believe all of us should be able to agree at least on this much:

The full faith and credit of the United States of America is not a bargaining chip. Continuing to play games with America's fiscal future will cause both short- and long-term damage to our national security. And neither the safety nor the financial well-being of the American people should be used as leverage by politicians angling for temporary partisan advantage.

Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat, former business leader, and Virginia governor, serves on the U.S. Senate's Banking, Budget, Commerce, and Intelligence committees.

The House on Wednesday passed legislation to suspend the nation's statutory borrowing limit for three months. The measure included a provision that docks the pay of lawmakers if one of the chambers of Congress fails to pass a budget blueprint by April 15.-Ed.

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