WASHINGTON — Doomsday.

That was the word that U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta used to describe the spending cuts that could hit the Department of Defense in 2013.

Panetta’s concerns are significant for Hawaii. A U.S. Census Bureau report released this week shows that Hawaii received the most federal defense dollars, per capita, of any state in the nation last year, $10 billion total.

The “doomsday mechanism” as Panetta called it, refers to the hundreds of billions of dollars in automatic spending cuts that would be triggered if Congress fails to meet the terms of the Budget Control Act of 2011.

A legislative Hail Mary passed to avert a federal government shutdown in August, the act requires a bipartisan congressional committee to come up with at least $1.2 trillion in spending cuts over a 10-year period in exchange for an increase to the federal debt ceiling.

Given the tension on Capitol Hill these days, plenty of political trackers say the super committee is doomed to fail. Even if the committee comes up with a plan, the whole Congress is then tasked with an up-or-down vote on the matter. Remember, this is the same Congress that Sen. Daniel Inouye — who has spent more than half a century in Washington — has repeatedly described as unprecedented in its partisanship.

But Inouye says he’s optimistic.

“They (super committee) are playing it close to the vest. There is nothing in the news about what they are discussing, which is the way it should be,” Inouye told Civil Beat through a spokesman. “I am operating under the assumption that it will work. Too many of us start thinking about Plan B before we are done focusing on Plan A. If we stay positive, focused and continue to work in a bipartisan fashion, good things will come of it.”

If the so-called super committee1 fails to develop a plan by Thanksgiving, $917 billion in automatic cuts known as sequestration would kick in. The automatic cuts would extend beyond defense: Hawaii also stands to lose from across-the-board cuts that would affect the federal cash-flow for education aid, energy programs, transportation projects and the like.

Some key caveats: Sequestration wouldn’t begin until January 2013, and the cuts would not apply to spending on the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. Funding for Social Security, Medicare and related programs would also be protected. And congressional history demonstrates that even with mandates, there are often amendments, loopholes and other surprises around the corner.

Under the automatic cuts, over a 10-year period, the federal government would slash about $500 billion in Department of Defense spending and the rest from across-the-board discretionary funding. Discretionary funding covers all kinds of federal aid — everything from student loan incentives to the New Starts grants that Honolulu officials hope will help pay for rail.

The Census Bureau found that Hawaii ranked fifth in the nation in overall federal funding per capita last year. Here’s a look at the top 10, from the bureau’s Consolidated Federal Funds Report for 2010, the most recent year for which data is available:

Hawaii also ranked first in the amount of federal dollars it gets, per capita, for salaries and wages last year.

Over the past decade, Hawaii has consistently received more federal funding year after year. Some national perspective: All but 12 states received more federal funding last year compared with the year before.

Federal Spending on Hawaii Since 2001

Year $ Millions
2010 20,8552
2009 18,985
2008 15,009
2007 14,062
2006 13,495
2005 12,699
2004 12,176
2003 11,269
2002 10,475
2001 9,729

Source: 2010 Consolidated Federal Funds Report, U.S. Census Bureau

It’s apparent from the amount of federal money Hawaii gets compared with other states that the automatic cuts could clobber Hawaii’s huge federal and military workforces.

Senior officials at the Pentagon said that civilian employees of the Defense Department would also face layoffs and furloughs if the automatic cuts are triggered, according to The Washington Post.

“This potential deep cut in defense spending is not meant as policy,” Panetta wrote in an August letter to all Defense Department personnel. “Rather, it is designed to be unpalatable to spur responsible, balanced deficit reduction and avoid misguided cuts to our security.”

In other words, by threatening to gut programs that both Republicans and Democrats hold dear, there is an incentive that Congress hopes will force super committee members to work together. But even if the Super Committee succeeds, federally funded programs that benefit Hawaii could be among those that the committee decides to cut.

Hawaii’s congressional delegation has until mid-October to submit recommendations to the super committee.

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