WASHINGTON -- Worry less about looming defense budget cuts, and more about the ones that will hurt regular people and families, leading Democrats argued in a Wednesday rally on Capitol Hill.
"Let's take a hard look at waste and inefficiencies in the Pentagon budgets and we'll be happy to take a look at waste and inefficiencies in the non-defense budget," Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) told The Huffington Post. "Let's match them up. I mean, that's ridiculous. We can do a lot without harming our national defense. We can't just take it all out of non-defense discretionary."
Harkin has been trying to counter the growing cries -- including from Democrats -- to preserve the defense budget from automatic cuts that Congress agreed to in last summer's debt limit deal. Far less has been said about the impacts on cuts other parts of the budget that would be just as large if the so-called "sequester" kicks in starting in 2013.
To illustrate the other side of the picture, Harkin released a report analyzing the impact of sequestration on "Nondefense Jobs and Services."
Among the highlights, the report noted that the economic effects on nondefense programs could be worse than cuts to Pentagon spending. It cited a December 2011 study that "found that investing $1 billion in health care or education creates significantly more jobs within the U.S. economy than spending $1 billion on the military." It argued that health care investments produce 54 percent more jobs and education yields 138 percent more.
If Congress does not act by Dec. 31, the sequester requires $1.2 trillion in cuts across the board, in both defense and other discretionary spending, resulting in an 8 percent loss to non-defense programs.
"It's been hard. To avoid the sequester, we need a balanced approach -- there is what we put out and what we bring in," said Emily Holubowich, spokeswoman for the Coalition on Health Funding, which spearheaded the event. "The amount of money we tend to bring in has been historically low," referring to historic low tax rates that averaged just 17.4 percent in 2009.
In a letter to Congress last week, a coalition of 3,000 organizations listed their concerns. Non-defense "programs represent a small and shrinking share of the federal budget and of our overall economy," the letter said. "The [non-defense] budget represented just 3.4 percent of our country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2011, consistent with historical levels."
"Everyone is concerned about the full effects of sequestration, but what we cannot say is we're just gonna take care of defense and take it all out of the non-defense side. What we are talking about today is the impacts on thousands of Americans," Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) told HuffPost "We are not going to allow sequestration to be a one-sided solution, it has to be balanced, it has to be fair, and there has to be revenue on the table."
Rita Ngabo, who spoke at the rally to put a human face on the cold numbers, said she was a 21-year-old homeless single mother with a 9-month-old infant a little more than three years ago, and she depended on government subsidies to get job training and child care. She is now a caseworker, helping other people in similar situations.
She said even the threat of sequestration was hurting people.
"We don't know what to tell the 19,000 who are currently on the wait-list [for job training and child care]," Nbago said, pointing out that telling an employer you're on a list doesn't do much to land the job. "Their excuse to their employer is that 'I don't have child care' or 'my child is being kicked out.' "
Not only do low-income families rely on this type of spending, but entire communities. "Businesses built in communities rely on these types of spending," said Holubowich. "Picture a college university -- a third of their budget comes from federal grants. This has an impact on everyone."
Rep. Rose De Lauro (D-Conn.) vehemently defended the working class. "Let's deal with revenue and let's deal with spending. We are not going to balance this budget on the backs of working families, middle class families and the most vulnerable in our society," she told HuffPost. "That is not who we are. If you want to start someplace, close the corporate loopholes and stop the subsidies to the special interests."
State governments would be particularly hard hit by sequester cuts to social spending. "One-third of what we spend ... is going to state and local governments," said Holubowich.
As the progressive Democrats rallied, the Senate's No. 2 Republican agreed more attention should be paid to the domestic programs facing the sequester ax, if only to get Democrats to replace the sequester.
"I think so, because I think that will help people on the other side of the aisle understand how foolish these kind of across-the-board cuts can be," Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) told reporters outside a panel discussion on the defense sequester.
Kyl insisted that both Democrats and Republicans "care about that other half of the ledger," which includes similar cuts to Head Start, child care assistance, AIDS assistance and substance-abuse treatment programs.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who voted against the legislation that established sequestration, said she naturally focuses more on the defense cuts as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"Listen, there's no question that I think we need to cut spending," the New Hampshire Republican told reporters. "Basically the sequestration approach is not the right approach for either side of the budget.