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Sequestration: What now?

Between the Lines

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Finally, the clock is ticking. No, not that one. We've made it through Election Day, which should have given us enough drama to carry us onward into 2013.

Instead, at least for Colorado Springs, the drama is just beginning.

While most of America dissects what happened in the 2012 presidential race, cities such as ours have a new cause for concern. And it might well have a more immediate impact on the Pikes Peak region than the aftermath of Barack Obama vs. Mitt Romney.

We're talking, of course, about sequestration.

For much of the country, that word's only meaning has to do with what can happen to a jury during a high-profile court case. For Colorado Springs, it's more ominous. Depending on the election's aftershocks, sequestration could mean immediate federal budget cuts starting Jan. 2.

Here, we're living in a local economy that embraces — and is heavily dependent upon — the military. So when we talk about the growing possibility of 11 percent in Pentagon cuts, that means a negative impact here for the Army and Air Force, as well as the area's many defense contractors.

We've heard repeatedly in recent months that sequestration "won't happen" in statements by President Obama and others, including U.S. Sen. Mark Udall. National-level media have reported that some major military contractors such as Lockheed, after hearing assurances from the White House and others in government, have chosen not to start the 60-day process required to lay people off under Department of Labor regulations.

Some might call that gambling, because Congress actually has to take action in lame-duck session before the end of the year to avert the automatic cuts. And as was described in September by a White House report detailing the cuts, "Sequestration is a blunt and indiscriminate instrument."

So even though we've heard that Fort Carson should be safe from major reductions, especially with its new Combat Aviation Brigade taking shape, anything like a 10 percent cut (or more) across the board would be felt.

And there's no guarantee of Congress agreeing to anything now, even if the election does come to a quick and tidy end — no matter what the outcome. The feeling was different back in September, when Obama seemed to have an insurmountable lead and momentum. Nearly two months ago, one well-connected Republican told me that an easy Obama victory would create a mandate, forcing lame-duck congressional compromises.

Not long after that, Obama's dismal showing and Romney's aggressive resurgence in their first debate changed the course of the campaign. In the end, after so many polls tightened, nobody was using the "mandate" word anymore. Instead, the two sides appear as stubbornly immovable as ever: Republicans wanting to cut domestic programs but not military, Democrats wanting tax increases for the wealthy as part of any solution.

Also caught in the middle are the infamous "Bush tax cuts" due to expire Dec. 31. Some would give Obama those higher taxes for the upper class, but others would impact everyone else.

What will be the answer? As we've seen throughout the past two years, when this Congress is in doubt, it kicks the can down the road. So the "action" probably will be to postpone sequestration until April or mid-year, passing on the burden to the "next" Congress.

That's better than just letting sequestration happen, which never seemed to be the intent back in August 2011. Then, this final option was considered so dire that neither party would ever let it happen — with countless cuts to at least 1,200 agencies including essential programs for the poor, the National Parks Service, and security for foreign embassies and consulates.

But this should be one more signal that Colorado Springs must work harder in years ahead to break away from being so heavily dependent on the military and defense-related spending. If the national mood swings toward more austerity, and more "nation-building at home" in the future, our region will suffer more than most.

Meanwhile, it will be no fun waiting to see what Congress might do. Because that answer, as we know all too well, is usually nothing.

routon@csindy.com

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