WASHINGTON — As Congress prepares to return to work next week, Washington state U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks offers a bold prediction: Even though a special supercommittee failed to prevent $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts in 2013, members of Congress will get the job done by the end of the year.
Dicks, 71, said that too much is at stake to let the automatic cuts go through, with states bracing to lose billions of dollars in federal aid, and military leaders lining up to oppose any automatically-triggered cuts.
"I don't think that's going to happen — I think that Congress will step in here," said Dicks, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.
Under a plan approved by Congress last year, the spending cuts will automatically take effect next year because the supercommittee could not come up with an alternative way to reduce the deficit by $1.2 trillion.
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Like many Democrats last year, Dicks urged Congress to increase taxes, not just cut spending, to meet the goal.
With Congress at loggerheads, it won't necessarily be easy to win approval for a new deficit-reduction plan. And President Barack Obama, eager to play the part of a budget-cutter as he seeks a second term, already has threatened to veto any plan that would stall the spending reductions, saying in November, "There will be no easy off ramps on this one."
As he gears up to begin his 36th year in the U.S. House, Dicks also makes an unorthodox pitch: Not only should Congress stop the automatic cuts, but members should start spending more money — despite the nation's $15 trillion debt.
"Austerity isn't going to get people back to work," said Dicks, who now ranks 10th in seniority among the 435 House members. "It's going to increase unemployment, and it's just so obvious."
With the House controlled by Republicans, any plans for new spending would face an uphill fight. But Dicks has many allies in his bid to devise a new deficit-reduction plan as a way to block automatic spending cuts — a plan Dicks thinks should include new revenues.
Many members already have made similar promises to fight any automatic cuts, and it's sure to become a familiar bipartisan refrain in the second session of the 112th Congress, which opens Tuesday.
Dicks noted that Democrats and Republicans in the House showed they can work together by passing 11 major appropriations bills late last year, while the media focused on the collapse of the supercommittee and the fight over whether to renew a Social Security payroll tax cut. He said he sometimes gets upset with media portrayals of Congress as "totally dysfunctional" when its positive work gets little publicity.
"This was kind of a landmark year," Dicks said. "We did get that done, and that was difficult. ... The Appropriations Committee is back in business."
Congress created its supercommittee, led by Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state and Republican Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, in August, asking it to develop a plan to trim the national deficit over the next 10 years.
The effort fell apart in late November, setting the stage for the automatic cuts. If Congress does not act, half of the cuts will come from military programs, and half will come from domestic spending programs.
The automatic cuts, which would take place under a process called sequestration, would translate to roughly an 8 percent across-the-board cut for non-defense discretionary spending. Education would be hard hit, losing more than 40,000 teachers and paraprofessionals, according to the National Education Association, the largest teachers' union in the country.
"That is the worst possible way to do it. ... We have got to somehow avoid this," Dicks said, calling the automatic cuts "bad policy for everybody."
"I am convinced that we will come up with an alternative that reaches the required goal without doing sequestration," he said. "It may be after the election. But I know there are people working on it, as we speak, to come up with a plan. This is what the supercommittee was supposed to do."
Some say there's no time to wait.
At a news conference in December before Congress began its holiday break, four Republican senators — John McCain and Jon Kyl of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire — said they would offer a plan to avoid the automatic cuts as soon as this month.
Kyl, one of the 12 supercommittee members, said the Pentagon would need to begin work a year in advance "to plan cuts of this draconian nature."
"That's why we have to get to this at the very beginning ... rather than waiting until the end of the year," he said.
And Graham said the plan to make such deep cuts in the military "offends the hell out of me that we would even consider that."
"In a Congress that's known for really ill-conceived ideas this ... takes the cake," he said.
Dicks said the automatic cuts would have a particularly big effect in Washington state, with its large reliance on military spending. He said the cuts would stop some military construction projects and force all contracts to be renegotiated, even affecting Boeing Co.'s plan to build new aerial refueling tankers for the Defense Department.
In addition to avoiding the automatic cuts, Dicks wants Congress to spend more on infrastructure and on water and sewer projects as a way to stimulate the sluggish economy.
He called himself "a devotee of Paul Krugman," the liberal author, professor, New York Times columnist and winner of the 2008 Nobel prize in economics. Dicks produced a copy of a Jan. 1 column in which Krugman lamented Congress' "misplaced focus" on reducing the deficit while unemployment remains high, saying it showed how disconnected members had become "from the suffering of ordinary Americans."
"There are a lot of good things we could be doing to get people back to work," Dicks said. "The oldest rule is, if you want to reduce the deficit, you've got to get people back to work so they start paying taxes."
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