Even people in the know are having trouble making sense of how sudden, automatic defense cuts could ripple across Washington state if federal lawmakers fail to reach a budget compromise this fall.
That danger comes from so-called sequestration $1.2 trillion in across-the-board reductions to domestic budgets and defense spending. The cuts would take effect over the next 10 years unless Congress finds a way to forestall them by Jan. 2.
The Defense Department makes up a disproportionate share of the cuts $500 billion, at least $55 billion of which would go into effect immediately. Its not clear yet how the Pentagon would put them in place.
Washington state, with its dense concentration of military-related industries, could lose at least 41,000 jobs, according to a July study by Stephen Fuller of George Mason Universitys Center for Regional Analysis.
The heavy cuts also would impact federally funded domestic programs such as courts, farm subsidies, national park rangers, air traffic controllers and public housing projects.
Fullers report, funded by the Aerospace Industries Association, estimated the country would lose 2 million jobs under sequestration as federal layoffs mount and drag down the economy.
Sequestration wouldnt affect military pay, but defense service contracts and construction could be on the chopping block.
Its unclear how it could unfold at Joint Base Lewis-McChord after a bonanza of government investment there over the last decade.
Col. Charles Hodges, Lewis-McChords new garrison commander, manages all the services the Defense Department provides to the bases 29,000 residents and its 43,000 service members.
Hodges said the Pentagon has not asked him to start drawing up plans for how the base south of Tacoma might adopt the cuts described under sequestration.
Were hoping for the best, Hodges said.
The federal cuts were supposed to be so unthinkable that they would compel lawmakers to get back to the table to craft a long-term budget deal and deficit reduction plan after Congress supercommittee failed to do so in 2011.
A year later, the partisan divide has only worsened.
At this point, there is a distinct risk of it happening because in order to prevent sequestration you have to have the House and Senate agree on something, said Rep. Adam Smith of Tacoma, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.
Smith characterized the odds of Congress making a deal to halt sequestration as 50-50. He thinks its unlikely lawmakers would reach an agreement until after the November election.
Theyll also have to decide whether to extend some or all of the Bush-era tax cuts that are set to expire. Both parties say they want to avoid the sharp defense cuts of sequestration, but they differ on the Bush tax cuts and strategies to trim deficit spending.
Post election, I think youll have a different dynamic, Smith said. Everyone coming back will have different incentives to stop the expiration of tax cuts, stop the sequestration.
House Republicans in May passed a budget that would have avoided sequestration and reduced the military cuts. President Obama rejected it because he believed it slashed spending on other programs too severely.
We want to be prudent with how we spend taxpayers money, but the way sequestration goes about it is not the best way and is actually a pretty bad way to do it, said Todd Winer, spokesman for Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane.