Those hoping that U.S. Rep. Jim Himes (D-4th District) would provide a ray of hope on the nation being able to avoid the potentially deep cuts in government spending known as “sequestration” did not get much optimism last week from the three-term congressman.
“I happen to believe that on March 1 a deal will not be struck and we will go into sequestration,” Mr. Himes said on Feb. 21 during remarks to the Greenwich League of Women Voters. “This will create havoc for our Defense Department, for the Federal Aviation Administration, for all of our federal programs, and it will have a detrimental effect on the economy.”
The slated $83 billion in cuts over one year are set to go into effect on March 1, and barring a last-minute deal or an extension of some kind, they will be deep and across the board, hitting both defense spending and social programs. The cuts had been designed through agreement between President Barack Obama and the Republican-led House of Representatives in 2011 to provide a kind of “sword of Damocles” to hang over Congress’s head and try to force the sides to hash out a deal on spending. However, no deal was reached, and Mr. Himes joined many political pundits in expressing pessimism that a deal could be struck to keep those cuts from going into effect.
If the sequestration cuts do begin, Connecticut is in line to have to furlough close to 3,000 defense industry jobs and to lose about $9 million in public school aid that pays for teachers, college grants and other programs and $2 million in environmental aid.
At the League of Women Voters event, Mr. Himes discussed several topics, including his recent appointment to the House’s Select Committee on Intelligence, education, immigration law reform and reform of gun laws in the wake of the Newtown shootings. But the economy dominated the discussion, both in Mr. Himes’s short speech and in the audience questions he took afterward in the 90-minute event. Most of the questions focused on the looming sequestration cuts, and Mr. Himes said this “self-created deadline” of March 1 was “enormously frustrating” to him.
“Whether it’s the government shutdown or the risk to the United States’ credit rating that comes from fooling around with the debt ceiling or now the sequestration, these are self-generated deadlines and self-generated crises,” Mr. Himes said before adding that the fourth-quarter slowing of the gross domestic product in the United States could be directly linked to defense contractors, expecting the impact of the sequestration, slowing down the contracts and furloughing workers. “I fear that’s what we’re going to see for some period of time after March 1.”
Mr. Himes said that as each of these deadlines came and went there has only been “halting progress towards adjusting our fiscal situation for better sustainability.” He contended that instead of taking rational steps to deal with tax revenues not covering spending and with Medicare and Social Security not being sustainable in future years and “addressing them in one big deal,” Congress has instead made things worse.
“This [big deal] isn’t going to be fun for anybody because all of the measures you take, whether it’s raising taxes or cutting spending, somebody hates,” Mr. Himes said. “But we’ve done this in a series of uncomfortable, crisis-driven episodes, making a little bit of progress as we go but creating tremendous economic uncertainty and, frankly, probably harming the recovery.”
He added that he believed once people saw the impact of the cuts on their lives, including on defense contractors in Connecticut and on people waiting far longer in airports because there are fewer TSA agents on staff, pressure will mount and a deal will have to get done. Mr. Himes said it continues to frustrate him that members of Congress know what the framework of a deal will look like already, yet have allowed this situation to occur.
Despite that gloomy forecast, Mr. Himes said he was at least “half optimistic that we are going to stumble into a reasonable answer on the budget.” He said the president was serious and willing to take steps that would irritate some on the left wing to make a deal and he has “enough respect for [Republican Speaker of the House] John Boehner and his history of legislating and negotiating and sense of need for his own space in history” to believe both sides could come together. Mr. Himes added that he didn’t think it would come “quickly and gracefully” though.
Mr. Himes has been an advocate of the reforms suggested by the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles Commission, which has critics on the right due to its call for increased tax revenues and on the left for what some see as an unduly harsh cut on Social Security and Medicare benefits. One of the questions at the event took that head on as Mr. Himes was asked how his position on those programs differed from the commission’s.
“[Simpson-Bowles] is a reasonable framework,” Mr. Himes said. “I could list for you a half dozen things I don’t like in Simpson-Bowles. It never went through the legislative process, so we never got the chance to try and amend it and make it better. But generally it is an OK starting point for the big deal that the country needs to do to get its long-term finances in order.”
Mr. Himes said he supported the principles of the commission’s recommendations that he claims protect the nation’s least well off by preserving heating assistance for the poor, Pell Grants to help pay for college, food stamps, and other programs. He called the commission’s report a “balanced approach,” including the defense and non-defense program cuts, additional revenues in a rate of three to one of spending cuts to taxes, and its focus on rising health care costs.
In direct response to the question, Mr. Himes said that both political parties “use fear of change” in Social Security and Medicare but that they can be fixed to have long-term sustainability. He said that this was done in 1986 to Social Security by rising the retirement age and raising the cap on wages, and he stressed that the program is not at risk for 26 more years. Mr. Himes said that was no reason to ignore the issue and avoid dealing with it, but there was no sense of crisis around it.
Mr. Himes said Medicare was the more pressing issue and that “the single most important thing to do” to fix the nation’s finances on a federal, state, local, and business level was to find a way to slow the rate of cost growth in health care. He said Medicare was a more efficient administrative program over private programs but it has very high rates of increase for costs. To deal with it, Mr. Himes said raising the eligibility age would hurt seniors and not provide much savings so he would continue to support programs that reduce the cost of health care and do everything from promoting healthier living to exploring what benefits are given when.
The questions weren’t all about the nation’s finances though. Several attendees had questions about the ability for gun control reform to be passed. Mr. Himes, who supports both an assault weapons ban and a ban on the kind of high-capacity magazines that allow a gun to shoot more bullets before having to be reloaded, was pessimistic about the chance for many of those proposals to be approved by Congress, but he said universal background checks can be approved and states can approve tougher measures. However, while Connecticut can act, Mr. Himes said the federal government needs to do more.
“It still shakes me to think about what happened two months ago in Newtown,” Mr. Himes said. “We have a long way to go and a real struggle to take the measures we know we need to take to keep our kids safe and, frankly, keep all of us safe. This is not a simple issue. Like so many of our issues in politics today, you hear from the extremes. You hear that people are going to take your guns and you don’t care about the Second Amendment and then you hear that no one should have guns. This is actually a tough issue.”
Mr. Himes noted that Japan has no guns and no gun violence and that Switzerland has lots of guns and no gun violence. He said that shows it’s about more than just possession but that the debate has to focus on them. Mr. Himes said attention must be paid to areas like mental health, but that steps like a universal background check should be implemented to close a loophole that allows people doing private and gun show sales to avoid the scrutiny people get when buying a gun from a store.
“I support the Second Amendment, but it is no infringement of our rights to say that certain weapons should be off limits,” Mr. Himes said. “There are no absolute rights in this country. There are no rights that are not regulated and moderated. None. I think it is legitimate for us to say that weapons that are designed explicitly to kill people for military purposes should not be in the hands of civilians. If there was an argument that it helped you hunt or protect yourself, that would be an argument, but I don’t think there is.”
Investment and immigration
Mr. Himes also spoke about education and said, compared to other countries, the United States has fallen behind in math, science, engineering, and technology. He said that had to be changed through investment in both education and in the nation’s infrastructure. He said that he and his congressional colleagues do a “terrible disservice” by just “repeating the mantra that if you work hard and play by the rules you will succeed.” Mr. Himes said that wasn’t true and that in today’s world you had to do all that while being educated and keeping your skills up and being as competitive as possible.
He admitted investment in infrastructure would take borrowing money on a national level, but that now was a time when it could be done with negative real interest rates and that this kind of investment would help put people to work.
“We are not doing the things we need to do to be competitive in this new world,” Mr. Himes said. “We are still educating our kids for the world of 50 years ago. We are not investing in the physical infrastructure like trains and networks and electrical distribution systems that we need to do if we’re going to be competitive with Shanghai and Frankfurt and London and Hong Kong, all of which are substantially out-investing us.”
Immigration reform was a topic at the event as well and on this Mr. Himes said he was “very optimistic” that a comprehensive and meaningful deal would be done. Saying that would be “an across-the-board win,” Mr. Himes said it would end a system that’s “currently about as inhumane as it can be.”
“Our enforcement-oriented system is all about yanking people out of basements and splitting up families,” Mr. Himes said. “Comprehensive immigration reform will make us feel better about the nature of the country we are and will also have a huge economic benefit. If you just imagine the 11 or 12 million people who are undocumented now in the system and paying taxes our fiscal problems get a little better. If we can figure out a way to keep the Ph.d.s and software engineers who are leaving for Russia or Korea or India, our new businesses and innovation are going to improve. And if we get this right and get good immigration like this country always has, the challenge around Social Security improves, because we get younger people in the system to contribute. I think we can get this deal done.”