GREENBELT, Md. — In the months leading up to sequestration and in the weeks since the March 1 across-the-board cuts went into effect, lawmakers with high concentrations of federal workers and contractors among their constituents have been trying to ease fears and answer unnerving questions about layoffs.
Concerned that their districts are poised to take a deeper hit than others, Republicans and Democrats in Maryland and Virginia have been meeting with anxious workers as sequestration shows no signs of going away anytime soon.
At the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on Friday, a couple hundred staffers gathered in an auditorium to hear Sen. Ben Cardin’s (D-Md.) take on the budget situation and voice concerns about their future.
One employee said she’d come from an “emergency meeting” the previous day on sequestration ramifications for her department. Another lamented that two of his friends had been laid off. “I’m worried it’s too incremental and too late for some people,” he said of the efforts in Washington to replace sequestration.
Both House Republicans and President Obama, in his budget released Wednesday, have offered different visions for a sequestration replacement. Both sides have described the mandatory cuts as a trigger that was supposed to spur Democrats and Republicans into arriving at a deficit-reduction agreement, not something that was actually supposed to happen.
“I understand Congress has a strange way of thanking you,” Cardin told the NASA employees, lauding their information and technological work that “helps saves lives,” like in Hurricane Sandy. “…It’s gotta be frustrating for all of you.”
Maryland, the senator noted, has 5.6 percent of its workforce in federal government jobs compared to 2.2 percent nationwide.
“We need a bipartisan budget. We may not like a budget but at least when you see what it is you can plan for it,” Cardin said. “We can never accept sequestration as the new norm.”
The Democrat told the crowd he is working with some GOP senators on a budget, but “I don’t know where that will lead.”
After the event, Cardin told PJM his outreach, to senators he wouldn’t name, was more of a behind-the-scenes effort than coalition-building for a “gang of eight”-style bipartisan agreement.
“I’m actually doing a lot of one-on-one discussions at this point because I don’t think it’s useful right now to have a gang,” he said. “There’s too many gangs out there.”
The senator apologized to the audience for “Congress not getting the job done by March 1″ and confessed it’s “highly unlikely that we will adjust the budget before Oct. 1.” Sequestration fell in the middle of the fiscal year, thus exacerbating the depth of the first year’s cuts when adjusted for the shorter year.
For some agencies, he said, that amounts to an 8 to 10 percent cut this year. “Those who say it’s only 2 percent, it’s not,” Cardin maintained.
One NASA worker said his 20-year-old son had asked him about sequestration, and he sought advice from the senator on a “better answer for young people on how our government operates.”
“We have the best democratic system in the world. It doesn’t look very good right now,” Cardin said. “…So I don’t know what to tell your son. The answer is don’t play with fire and that’s what we did … and people are getting that.”