RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — It's a hot-button issue in Virginia's high-stakes Senate race right now, but "sequestration" stands to devastate Virginia's economy unless Congress acts in the next few months to avert it.
The issue with its alien-sounding name is Washington shorthand for deep, indiscriminate and automatic cuts to national defense and other federal spending. Virginia would suffer disproportionately because it's home to major defense sites, including the Pentagon.
Bearing the brunt would be Virginia's two most populous, economically important and politically decisive regions — northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.
Both have enormous pools of active-duty military, civilian Defense Department employees and contractors, tens of thousands of federal workers and untold others who work for businesses that would suffer in the ripples such draconian layoffs cause.
Republican George Allen put the issue in play in Virginia, tarring Democrat Tim Kaine at a debate two weeks ago for supporting the bipartisan congressional compromise that created sequestration a year ago.
The deal Kaine said he supported was a compromise reached in late July 2011 on the eve of the deadline to either raise the amount of money the United States was authorized under the law to borrow or default on U.S. debts for the first time in the nation's history.
Allen neglected to note at the time that Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell supported the compromise formally known as the Budget Control Act of 2011, or that another powerful Virginia Republican, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, helped get it passed. The Senate's Republican majority leader, Mitch McConnell, and the party's 2008 presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, also backed the deal that bought the government time for a congressional "super committee" to try to agree on $1.2 trillion in savings and spending cuts. All of them now condemn the possible defense cuts, as does Kaine.
The Budget Control Act was enacted to buy time. To ensure a resolution, it prescribed draconian consequences that neither party could stomach for failing to reach a congressional consensus by the end of 2012 on a more reasoned and less painful way to reduce federal deficits and keep the $16 trillion debt from ballooning even further.
Unless Congress and the White House compromise, the nation faces $1.2 trillion in automatic, indiscriminate, across-the-board federal spending cuts to defense and domestic programs over 10 years, with about half pared from the military. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has described it as a disaster in the making.
"Sequestration is not just some pipe dream out there. It is the law. It's on the books," U.S. Rep. J. Randy Forbes, a Republican whose district takes in part of military-dependent southeastern Virginia, said in July.
He has reason to worry.
The worst would be in the first year when cuts would total $110 billion.
Separate studies this summer by the International Monetary Fund and by George Mason University predict that the meat ax approach to budget reduction under sequestration would slam the nation's economy back into a recession and boost the unemployment rate nationally by 1.5 percent by next summer.
Proportionately, no state would suffer more than Virginia.
The commonwealth would lose 136,191 jobs from defense cuts alone, more than any other state, according to the analysis by George Mason and Richmond-based Chmura Economics and Analytics. Not only is Virginia home to the Pentagon and the world's largest U.S. Navy base in Norfolk, it is also a hub for major defense contractors such as aircraft carrier builder Newport News Shipbuilding.
Non-defense budget cuts would eliminate another 71,380 jobs in Virginia.
Virginia's total job losses projected by the study — 207,571 — are second only to California, where the GMU study suggests 225,464 jobs would vanish. But California's population of nearly 37.7 million is more than four times that of Virginia's.
The damage to Virginia's economy may have already begun, warned respected economics analyst Christine Chmura, whose firm teamed with GMU's Center for Regional Analysis to prepare the study.
"Firms that are very dependent on government contracts are already looking at who they would have to lay off if sequestration does happen," she said Thursday in an interview. "It's already creating a lot of uncertainty."
Throwing such a loaded issue into the blazing politics of an electoral battleground like Virginia was inevitable. Allen had timed the issue to the minute, too. Forty-eight hours after the July 28 debate, his campaign was televising an ad across the state that never mentioned Kaine by name but clearly — and falsely — creates the impression that Kaine approves of the looming deep military cuts.
GMU political science professor Mark Rozell said it might be an effective short-term tactic in a Senate race that a Quinnipiac University poll last week showed was dead even. The outcome could determine whether Republicans wrest control of the Senate from the Democrats. After Kaine's strong debate performance, it put the Democrat on the defensive, particularly in the two urbanized regions of Virginia where candidates must do well to win statewide.
But is it good governance?
After a five-week August recess spent back home campaigning, a Congress already paralyzed by partisanship will have only a few weeks to reach a deficit-reduction deal with a White House that has shown little initiative on the issue. If they don't, sequestration could destroy livelihoods, wreck investments, deplete savings accounts and devour plans for retirements and college educations for the second time in four years. That's why further balkanizing the political environment isn't helpful, Rozell said.
"George Allen isn't in leadership right now. He just has to mobilize groups of voters and that's what he's trying to do," Rozell said. "He can deal with governance and leadership after he's elected. If he's elected."
Bob Lewis has covered Virginia politics and government for The Associated Press since 2000.
Read the GMU report: http://www.aia-aerospace.org/assets/Fuller_II_Final_Report.pdf