WASHINGTON, D.C. — Given the down-to-the-wire bipartisan brinkmanship that has been the norm this year, Congress’ passage of a two-year bipartisan budget plan via a Senate vote Wednesday evening was curiously anticlimactic. It followed passage of the bill in the House last week.
President Barack Obama issued a statement shortly after the vote, commending Congress for its collaboration and calling the measure “a good first step away from the shortsighted, crisis-driven decision-making that has only served to act as a drag on our economy.”
The budget agreement lays out $1.012 trillion in discretionary spending — which doesn’t include congressional funds for mandatory programs like Medicare and Social Security — for federal agencies for fiscal year 2014 and $1.014 trillion for the following year.
So what does it mean for Hawaii?
We’ll have a more detailed sense of the local impact once appropriations committees begin their work in January, but areas of the budget deal that are troubling to Hawaii lawmakers are already becoming clear.
Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, the only member of the Hawaii delegation to vote against the bill, was troubled by what she sees as unnecessary and harmful cuts despite the bipartisan agreement.
“We’ve seen the decline in the deficit,” Hanabusa told Civil Beat Wednesday. “So why is it that we’re not able to take those gains and realize that we, as a country, need to invest in ourselves? I still see…that we’re cutting, instead of investing in the country.”
In a phone interview Wednesday evening, Hanabusa said that one of her biggest concerns was that the government is breaking a promise to members of the military. The budget deal includes $85 billion in cuts over the next 10 years and nearly $13 billion in fee hikes for airline passengers, along with $6 billion in reduced cost-of-living benefits for military retirees younger than 62.
“One of the important things to me is the government has to keep its word,” Hanabusa said. “Military personnel were told that if they served, if they put themselves in harm’s way, they could retire after 20 years. To take away 1 percent off their [cost of living adjustment] every year until they’re 62 is going back on a fundamental promise that was made to them.”
House budget aides say this cut will effectively reduce lifetime retirement pay by about 6 percent for an enlisted service member who enrolls at age 18, according to The Washington Post.
The budget deal also extends sequester-level cuts to Medicare by two years, which Hanabusa says amounts to balancing the budget “on the backs of kupuna.”
Although the cuts will primarily affect Medicare providers, a consortium of hospitals, as well as lawmakers like Hanabusa, say that cutting funds to health care providers will ultimately limit seniors’ access to care. Doctors often cite low Medicare payments as a reason for restricting the number of Medicare patients they can serve.
All three other members of the Hawaii delegation voted to pass the plan but cited concerns about cuts to benefits for military retirees and federal workers. The entire state delegation also has publicly voiced concern about the budget deal boosting air travel fees. “The people of Hawaii are going to take the hit because, through no fault of their own, we have one mode of interisland transport and we are a chain of islands,” Hanabusa said.
The plan would double fees for interisland travel within Hawaii to about $10 per round trip flight as of October 2014, according to a joint statement by Sens. Mazie Hirono and Brian Schatz. The pair on Wednesday introduced a bill proposing to exempt Hawaii and Alaska from these higher fees.
In some ways, the three members of the Hawaii delegation who voted for the budget agreement may regret certain elements that did or did not make it into the quietly negotiated bipartisan budget agreement, such as Congress’ failure to extend long-term unemployment insurance for 1.3 million Americans who are slated to stop receiving checks on Jan. 1.
Still, Sen. Schatz defended the overall agreement in a statement released Wednesday: “In a divided government, the people expect responsible leaders to find ways to govern and work together. For too long, the United States government has been lurching from crisis to manufactured crisis and using short–term stopgaps to fund the government — eroding the American people’s confidence and hurting the economy.”
He called the two-year budget deal a way to “move beyond reckless threats of government shutdown” and a signal of “much-needed cooperation.”
On the other hand, the deal that passed Wednesday doesn’t raise the debt ceiling. That’s likely to return as an issue in early 2014.
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