BU Professor: Budget cuts ‘could be devastating’ for Massachusetts

“It’s an elaborate game of chicken,” professor Thomas Whalen, a political historian at Boston University, told the International Business Times in a Feb. 21 article. “Obama doesn’t have to go for reelection again. They do. The Republicans have to be pretty uneasy about that. In retrospect, it was a brilliant move for President Obama to kick this can down the road to have the sequester after the election.”

Whalen, an associate professor of social science at BU, has appeared often in various media talking about the sequester cuts. An expert in modern American politics, American foreign policy, and the American presidency, Whalen has contributed commentary to The New York Times, ABCNews.com, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, and the Associated Press.

He discussed the sequester and the potential havoc it could bring to Massachusetts with Boston.com via phone.

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Boston.com: Will the sequester happen?

Professor Thomas Whalen: It certainly looks that way at this point. I think President Obama politically benefits from it. He has positioned the Republicans in a really impossible situation politically – defending the rich as opposed to supporting a compromise measure. What the president is putting on the table is less extreme. He’s crafted the situation so it appears that they do not want to close loopholes on the wealthiest Americans. They just want cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. I think to the vast majority of Americans that argument – particularly when it comes to Medicare and Medicaid, and Social Security – everyone wants to cut, but not those programs.

Boston.com: If nothing happens, will the cuts be immediate?

Whalen: I think it will be half and half. Half the cuts will come with the fiscal year, but we’ll get about $40 billion this fiscal year. Some will be pretty immediate.

Boston.com: How will it impact the average American if it hits?

Whalen: In terms of the Defense Department, they cut contracts pretty quickly, and that will cause a lot of layoffs. Air traffic controllers will be cut right away. Airports could be a mess right around the corner. There will be longer waits and people will be inconvenienced.

Headstart programs will be affected directly, meaning a lot of kids won’t be able to enjoy the benefits of that early education. A lot of teachers will be laid off. Even the price of meat will go up because beef inspectors will be cut, which will cause shorter supply and drive up the price. There are a lot of pocketbook issues which will be affected.

Boston.com: How will it impact us here in Massachusetts?

Whalen: Because we have so many universities, hospitals, and high-tech firms like Raytheon that rely a lot on defense contracts, it could be pretty devastating. We’re talking thousands of jobs lost here.

The medical schools and universities that rely on grants – this will greatly affect them. It’s going to upset the bottom line and they will have to cut back on teachers, maybe student aides. So many jobs here depend on the defense industry and this will cause problems. Just as it looked really bright, there is a dark cloud emerging. In many ways, we are being penalized for being innovative.

Boston.com: So, you see no chance of an agreement being reached?

Whalen: There is just no agreement on Capitol Hill, so I don’t see it happening. I don’t see a retroactive agreement. I don’t see one side caving in. President Obama is in a good position because he doesn’t have to run again. Mid-terms aren’t that far off, so, the Republicans are really going to look bad as things like national parks have layoffs and services are cut back. The onus is on the Republicans who already face pressure from the Tea Party [wing of the Republican Party] who see the sequester cuts as a victory. The mid-terms are a major trump card Obama has to force a compromise.

Boston.com: Will the sequester cuts throw us into a recession?

Whalen: The consensus seems to be that it will not help the overall recovery. There will be a rise in unemployment and in unemployment benefits. I don’t think it will throw us completely into a recession, but it will really slow things down. Just when housing is picking up and the trade deficit is down, it’s a negative impact. I think the stock market will take it as a negative. Long-term bonds will also be impacted because this will not enhance the credibility of the federal government in the eyes of investors and foreign investors. That could drive up interest rates.

Boston.com: Are the sequester and the recent fiscal drama signs that our government is simply unable to function?

Whalen: You can make a case that we are ungovernable. This does not seem like that big an issue. Why can’t we get our act together here? This is not an impossible task. This is not putting a man of the moon or winning World War II. This seems like a relatively simple matter that both sides can’t seem to get together on. It’s just puzzling.