By Douglas Moser
---- — ANDOVER — The two local representatives in Congress yesterday defended the role of government spending in the area to a group of business leaders while saying they are somewhat optimistic about a federal deficit deal given several compromises that passed in Washington this year even with significant Republican opposition.
Congresswoman Niki Tsongas, D-Lowell, and Congressman John Tierney, D-Salem, Mass., said further deficit reduction could be accomplished with thoughtful cuts in spending and higher tax revenue through boosting rates on dividend and investment income. A scheduled automatic across-the-board slash in funding, split evenly between the military and domestic programs, would cost too many jobs, they said.
“Our most immediate problem is not spending, as (House Speaker) John Boehner would have you believe, it’s jobs,” said Tierney.
The representatives addressed a Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce breakfast at the Wyndham Boston Andover hotel on Old River Road yesterday morning.
Both members warned that a second round of federal spending cuts totaling $1.2 trillion over 10 years — half from defense spending and half from other domestic programs excluding Medicaid, Social Security and civil and military pay — would lead to a drag on the economy and to job losses, particularly in the defense and research sectors in Massachusetts.
They said they supported some targeted cuts to spending, though they did not offer specifics, and defended the role of government spending in research, job training and community development.
“We need to deal with the debt in a way that’s sustainable, not destabilizing to the economy,” Tsongas said.
She pointed to the industrial cities in her district, from Haverhill, Methuen and Lawrence locally and west to Lowell, Fitchburg, Gardner and Marlborough, where she said federal community development grants and job training programs can help those cities “find a path forward.”
Tierney said he supported a review of the Pentagon budget to reduce spending, specifically to identify weapons programs that are tested and feasible while reducing production of those that are not and to review American bases overseas. Ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan also would reduce military spending.
However, research funding, of which Massachusetts gets a significant share for it universities and Hanscom Air Force base, should be protected.
“We shouldn’t hack with a hatchet the defense budget, just like we shouldn’t with the domestic side,” Tierney said.
He said the recovering economy, along with about $917 billion in spending cuts in 2011 and about $620 billion in tax increases — both figures are totals over 10 years — passed in January and another deficit bill next month to head off the automatic cuts, would reduce the budget deficit to a sustainable level.
They promised to do what they can to protect Massachusetts military installations during base closure talks despite the commonwealth’s loss over the last few years of several influential senior members of Congress, including former Congressman Barney Frank, former Sen. John Kerry and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy.
Tierney said he felt optimistic some bills, including deficit reduction and immigration, could be passed given three recent laws passed in the U.S. House of Representatives over the opposition of a majority of Republicans, who control the chamber.
“It gives us hope that there will be serious votes and responsible governance,” he said.
In 2011, Congress and President Obama engaged in a standoff over raising the federal borrowing limit. On Aug. 2, 2011, hours before the government would have been unable to borrow money to pay its obligations, a deal was reached to raise the limit, cut spending $917 billion over 10 years, and establish a so-called supercommittee of U.S. Senators and Congressmen to negotiate another $1.2 trillion to $1.5 trillion in spending cuts.
The law also specified that if the supercommittee failed to produce a bill by Thanksgiving 2011, which it did, a round of automatic cuts totaling $1.2 trillion over 10 years, divided equally between defense and non-defense programs but excluding Medicaid and Social Security, would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2013. Medicare payments to doctors and hospitals would be eligible for cuts, but cuts to benefits was limited to a 2 percent reduction.
That round of automatic cuts was postponed until March.
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