Swaying the supercommittee

Broad array of Md. groups lobby on deficit reduction

November 14, 2011|By John Fritze and Matthew Hay Brown, The Baltimore Sun

At 84, Barbara Talbert might seem an unlikely Washington lobbyist. But when she heard senior citizen programs could be cut to reduce federal budget deficits, she quickly got on a bus to Capitol Hill.

"As far as Social Security is concerned, some people have that as their only income," the Bowie resident said, repeating the pitch she made to staff members in nine congressional offices in a single day. "Others with health problems depend solely on Medicare."

Dozens of Maryland businesses, nonprofit groups and, in some cases, individuals are lobbying the congressional "supercommittee" charged with finding a way to trim federal budget deficits by $1.2 trillion over the next decade. All of them are working to protect their slice of the federal pie.

The breadth of the interests involved underscores just how critical the panel's decisions or lack of progress — could be for Maryland. The state's leading hospital systems and universities, veterans and retirees, federal workers and environmentalists are all working to influence the outcome of the deficit debate.

The effort on behalf of Marylanders is part of a national campaign to influence where cuts are made and which taxes, if any, are raised. More than 200 businesses and nonprofits across the country with an interest in swaying the supercommittee have spent millions of dollars lobbying since July, a review by the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation shows.

For Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, the effort to keep cuts from affecting federal workers has been a top priority. The group has sent letters to each member of the panel, and its lobbyists frequently meet with lawmakers and their staffs one on one.

The union represents thousands of federal employees in Maryland, including at state-based agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration in Silver Spring and the National Center for Health Statistics in Hyattsville. It spent $178,270 attempting to influence Congress over the past three months, according to recent disclosure reports.

Kelley is primarily concerned with a proposal that workers contribute an additional 1.2 percent of their pay to retirement plans. There are also rumblings of extending the current two-year pay freeze, she said. Either policy could have a disproportionate impact on Maryland, home to 286,810 federal workers.

"Federal employees understand the economic situation of the country, but we think that this is enough," she said of the freeze, which began this year. "We're, of course, communicating pretty much nonstop with the committee in the hopes of [an extension] not happening."

While most voters can't get an audience with committee members, their state elected leaders sometimes do. Gov. Martin O'Malley, the chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, has met repeatedly with Democratic members of the panel to urge a "balanced approach" of spending cuts and tax increases.

In their meetings, O'Malley said, he and other Democratic governors warned the supercommittee members that the fragile economic recovery "could be totally crushed by deep, precipitous and, in our view, irresponsible cuts that some would like to see."

O'Malley said Maryland, as home to the National Security Agency, the National Institutes of Health, and other federal agencies and their contractors, could be particularly vulnerable.

"In a realm where some would say that the only solutions to our fiscal challenges are cuts, and more cuts, and cuts on top of cuts, then those assets can be badly damaged," he said. "And with them, a lot of jobs."

The six Democrats and six Republicans on the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, as the supercommittee is officially known, are under pressure to broker a deal soon. If they fail to reach an agreement by Nov. 23, automatic, across-the-board spending cuts will kick in starting in 2013.

If the committee deadlocks, half of the automatic reductions would hit defense and the other half could fall on Medicare, medical research, transportation and other government services. Safety net programs for the poor, such as Medicaid, are protected. Cuts to Medicare would be capped at 2 percent.

A delegation of Maryland veterans organized by the American Legion pressed Rep. Chris Van Hollen this month to preserve defense spending, protect veterans benefits and — above all — to reach an agreement. The Montgomery County Democrat is the only member of Maryland's delegation who is serving on the supercommittee.

World War II and Korean War veteran Clarence Bacon, a former national commander of the legion, said the Marylanders delivered a simple message to Van Hollen: That further defense cuts could harm national security.

"He's one of 12 members, and it's anybody's guess what that committee is going to finally come out with," Bacon said. "We encouraged him to support our position."

Environmentalists concerned about the Chesapeake Bay are also working the committee.

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