Will sky fall in S.C. if there’s no budget deal?

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 23, 2013 

— In the avalanche of ominous warnings about the impact of forced federal spending cuts on South Carolina, perhaps none is more chilling than this:

If Congress and President Barack Obama fail to reach a deal and the cuts start next Friday as scheduled, nearly 20 women in the Palmetto State this year could fail to be diagnosed with breast cancer or cervical cancer because of missed screenings that would have detected them, according to an estimate based on figures from the American Academy of Pediatrics on S.C. screenings and diagnoses over five years.

Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security benefits would not go down, because they’re exempt from the upcoming cuts, but there are more warnings that, while less dire than cancer diagnoses, still are alarming:

The unemployment rate in South Carolina, now at 8.4 percent, could rise to double digits again. An analysis by George Mason University in Virginia suggests the state’s overall economy could take a $3 billion hit in 2013, one-third of it from the loss of direct federal funds and the rest from private sector firms that supply goods or services for dozens of government programs.

While Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham has focused attention on the harm to national security, others have warned they would hurt thousands of South Carolinians with no ties to the military, among them low-income mothers and their young children, university scientists who rely on federal research grants, students at the poorest schools and folks who’ve been without work for months.

Despite recent pledges by some lawmakers to try to work across the aisle, the deadline fight over the automatic spending cuts extends the partisan struggle that began in summer 2011 with a weeks-long impasse over whether to increase the government’s borrowing authority.

The difference this go-round is that Americans blamed Republicans more than Democrats for that impasse, according to polls, and Obama was subsequently re-elected by a decisive margin.

Now Obama, his Cabinet members and congressional Democrats are trying to press the advantage by releasing reams of data that purport to show devastating impacts from the forced cuts. Many Republicans counter that the impacts are exaggerated and the cuts aren’t so bad.

“I don’t believe we should drastically reduce our military readiness, lay off police officers and TSA (Transportation Security Administration) agents and cut public schools funding to protect tax loopholes for the wealthy,” said House Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn of Columbia. “South Carolina will suffer significantly due to these draconian cuts.”

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood warned Friday of flight cancellations and delays lasting as long as 90 minutes because of furloughs to air-traffic controllers.

The Federal Aviation Administration released a list of air-traffic control facilities that could be closed, among them those at airports in North Myrtle Beach and Florence. A separate list of towers where overnight shifts might disappear includes those at the Columbia and Charleston airports.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu flagged the Savannah River Site in Aiken County, which would lose tens of millions of dollars in funds, as one of a handful of nuclear complexes that would take a big hit.

“The Department of Energy runs of the largest environmental cleanup and remediation programs in the world in addressing the legacy of Cold War nuclear weapons production,” Chu said. “Sequestration would curtail this progress, delaying work on our highest risks at sites in Washington state, Tennessee, South Carolina and Idaho.”

These and similar admonitions don’t phase Rep. Mick Mulvaney, an Indian Land Republican starting his second House term.

Mulvaney accused Obama and his Democratic congressional allies of exaggerating the impact of the forced cuts, which he said would reduce the government’s projected $900 billion deficit this year by just $43 billion, or 4.8 percent.

“I’m not concerned about all the Chicken Little anguish about air planes crashing into each other because there aren’t enough flight controllers or about food poisoning because there aren’t enough food inspectors,” Mulvaney said. “To me, that’s a lot of fear-mongering and hype.”

Mulvaney, saying he prefers targeted spending reductions over across-the-board cuts, noted that he and South Carolina’s then-four other Republican House members broke with most other lawmakers from their party and voted against the system of forced cuts when Congress set it up in August 2011 as part of legislation to raise the federal debt ceiling.

While he said the automatic cuts, known as sequestration, would take non-defense federal funding only back to 2008 levels, Mulvaney acknowledged that Obama holds a stronger negotiating hand, with polls showing that Americans by large margins would blame Republicans more than Democrats for its impact.

“I’m afraid that if sequestration goes into effect, it will be used as an excuse for everything that goes wrong for the next four years,” he said. “If we have another Benghazi episode (the September 2012 consulate attack in Libya), it will be blamed on sequester. If we have another Newton (school shooting in December 2012), it will be blamed on sequester. That’s the risk we run in trying to cut the budget. I don’t see any way out of it.”

In Columbia, Sue Berkowitz has a different view on the front lines of helping low-income folks cope from her post as head of the S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center.

“The hardest hit are going to be our really poor and our really rural areas where we already have little hope and not exemplary outcomes,” Berkowitz said. “Real people are going to be devastated by this. It’s not a game, and it’s not political gamesmanship.”

Rep. Jeff Duncan, a Laurens, S.C., Republican also starting his second term, said the federal agencies should be able to handle what he described as relatively minor spending cuts in order to help protect his constituents and other South Carolinians.

Duncan said he’s returned more than $400,000 in funds allocated to him for staff and office expenses, a 15 percent refund to the U.S. Treasury to help pay down the debt, and that executive agencies need to do their share.

“I’m concerned about where these cuts are going to be applied,” Duncan said. “That’s a management issue. It comes down to operating like a business. Every agency should be able to absorb these cuts.”

Email: jrosen@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @jamesmartinrose

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