Recently, some in the media have promoted the idea that the $85 billion sequestration cuts triggered on March 1 aren't causing drastic effects. CNN called the cuts "not as bad as advertised," and a Washington Post report found the cuts less "scary" than predicted. Tell that to the 46,000 Department of Defense employees in Maryland and another 103,000 in the Capitol Region who are being furloughed, resulting in up to a 20 percent reduction in weekly pay through the rest of the fiscal year. Or maybe those who should be receiving the 700 grants not being offered by the National Institutes of Health because of its $1.5 billion cut. I am sure that these public servants who provide critical support for our uniformed military or find cures for life-threatening diseases — many of whom are now struggling to pay mortgages, car loans and grocery bills with up to 20 percent less income — would strongly disagree that sequestration isn't having profound effects.
Earlier this month, the Defense Department began furloughs for 652,000 civilian employees nationwide, forcing them to take up to 11 unpaid days off through September. This is in addition to furloughs (or total shutdowns) at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Environmental Protection Agency and Internal Revenue Service. These furloughs are poor policy. They greatly disrupt our national and economic security and put civilians in financial hardship. Our government cannot continue to provide for the defense of our nation by maintaining such a harmful policy toward its civilian workers.
Visiting installations throughout Maryland, I heard and saw the impact the furloughs of defense and other federal employees will have. For instance, at the Indian Head Naval Surface Warfare Center in Charles County, over 1,870 civilian employees, about 97 percent of the total government civilian workforce there, are being forced to take leave without pay one day per week. This puts base police and fire protection, safety programs, air operations, quality of life programs and facilities at risk.
At Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, furloughs will hit 2,400 Defense Department civilians — 94 percent of the civilian staff. Walter Reed is the country's top facility for wounded combat soldiers. Its Department of Orthopedics and Rehabilitation is the largest within the Department of Defense. Its seven specialty service clinics include one for traumatic brain injuries. Soldiers needing expert care might have to wait longer for appointments or be forced to go to nonmilitary medical facilities, both of which will drive up costs.
At Fort Detrick, 4,900 Defense Department civilians will be furloughed. Those civilians support a multi-government community that conducts biomedical research and development, and medical materiel management that includes everything from advanced bandages to vaccines for soldiers on the battlefield and in military hospitals.
Aberdeen Proving Ground, Harford County's largest employer and home to 11 major commands and more than 80 agencies, has approximately 11,500 DoD civilian employees subject to furloughs, about half APG's workforce. Before sequestration, APG reported contributing more than $400 million in payroll and $500 million in contracts annually.
At Fort Meade, Maryland's largest employer, sequestration is impacting the entire region. Most of its 27,000 DoD civilian employees face furloughs. This is not only a monetary strain but also a heavy burden on social and personal relationships. We must ensure these employees know what services are available to combat potential issues that may arise from the added stress of furloughs, whether balancing mortgage payments and finances on a limited income, making car payments or even getting and maintaining a security clearance with reduced creditworthiness.
We also must not forget that at all of the Maryland installations, and the communities that are home to federal facilities, furloughs will have ripple effects. Furloughed workers will not go to local restaurants for lunch, or fill up their gas tanks as often or shop beyond the basics, as they struggle to make ends meet with up to 20 percent less pay.
Sequestration is hurting real people and real families. It's harming our national security readiness and local economies. It is irresponsible to dismiss these hardships as "better than they could have been." Even conservative governors Rick Scott of Florida, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Phil Bryant of Mississippi, previous champions of sequestration and massive cuts to the federal government, changed their tune when they realized that preparing for hurricane season would be much more difficult with National Guardsmen furloughed one day a week.
We cannot afford to let political dysfunction get in the way of ensuring our national security and public health. We must restart negotiations on a comprehensive plan to end sequestration and restore normal, regular and, in many circumstances, absolutely essential functions of our government.
Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, is a member of the Senate's Environment & Public Works, Finance, Foreign Relations and Small Business and Entrepreneurship committees. His website is cardin.senate.gov. You can follow him on Twitter @SenatorCardin.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun