ARLINGTON — U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly on Monday called on Congress to cancel its upcoming five-week recess in order to solve looming $500 billion defense cuts that could cost Northern Virginia thousands of jobs.
That sentiment was echoed by Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce President Jim Corcoran, who said the federal government shouldn't balance its budget on the backs of the defense industry. And Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Moran, who arrived late to the "Stop Sequestration" rally thanks to a flight delay, said afterward he supported Connolly's idea.
"Sequestration" is the name given to $1 trillion federal budget cuts that will happen in January if Congress doesn't reach a compromise. Half of that would affect the defense industry, which some estimates say could cost Virginia more than 207,000 jobs.
About 250 people, many employed by defense contractors with major presences in Northern Virginia, attended the Stop Sequestration rally at the Crystal Gateway Marriott on Monday afternoon. The list of speakers included Republican and Democratic elected officials and chief executives of some of the area's largest contractors — including Falls Church-based Northrop Grumman, which employs about 8,000 people in Northern Virginia.
They used words like "devastating," "extremely destructive" and "insanity" to describe the looming cuts, which were put in place by the so-called Super Committee once upon a time to force a congressional budget compromise. That hasn't happened.
"It was never meant to be a policy. It was a Sword of Damocles to hang over everyone's head. It was never expected to happen," Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell said.
"We need to stop it now. Not after the election. Not hoping something happens during a lame-duck session. Men and women in both parties need to come together. We need to create certainty and security."
Most of the applause lines were blatantly bipartisan.
Several speakers took the time to point out the other half of sequestration, $500 billion in cuts that could affect everything from air traffic controllers to Head Start.
John Jumper, a former Air Force chief of staff and current chief executive of McLean-based Science Applications International Corp., or SAIC, said affected contractors hire a substantial number of veterans each year. Many of the companies that would be hurt by the cuts research everything from a cure for cancer to new technology to locate improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.
Further, small- to mid-sized companies generate much of the "entrepreneurial innovation" that larger firms later recruit or advance, said Brad Antle, CEO of Fairfax-based Salient Federal Solutions and chairman of the Northern Virginia Technology Council, which represents about 1,000 companies.
Proposed defense cuts would hit these companies harder and devastate the "innovation pipeline," he said.
Several speakers pointed out that all of these businesses enrich the local economy because their employees spend money in local shops and restaurants.
"Small businesses are key players in the economy of this region," said Corcoran, with the Fairfax chamber.
"What's driving them crazy is they don't know if they can hire another person. They haven't lost faith in innovation. They haven't lost faith in their ability to grow. They've lost faith in the federal government as their biggest partner."
Republican U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf said he believed enacting entitlement reform, particularly as recommended in the 2010 Simpson-Bowles plan, would work for a long-term solution. Democratic U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, who represents the Hampton Roads area, said not extending tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans would produce the $1 trillion needed to make sequestration go away. Scott said one estimate indicated half of the Hampton Roads economy was tied to the defense industry.
Moran told the crowd that he expected the defense cuts would not happen. He said the problem was Democrats who refused to budge on entitlement reforms and Republicans who refused to allow the government to raise new revenue. He praised Wolf, McDonnell and South Carolina's Lindsey Graham for their bipartisan efforts.
"People should expect more from their Congress, that the art of politics should always be the art of compromise," Moran said.
But, he said, people who care about this issue need to stay involved long after it's settled. The country needs a healthier, more educated electorate if it's going to prosper, he said.
"You're all smarter than the average American. Trust me. In too many parts of the country, people are being dumbed down and fattened up," Moran said.
"Let's do this together. That's why we're here. But most importantly, that's who you are."