Yes, SEs can play an important role in the sales cycle in a down economy.
How? Note that in a complex sales cycle there are actually two decision cycles at work in parallel — The business decision and the technical decision. These decision cycles are independent of each other except that the technical decision needs to happen well before the business decision.
So, just because the business decision is stalled because money is not flowing, does not prevent the technical decision from moving forward as usual. The SE can work the technical decision right up to actually acquiring the decision. The SE can then maintain watch over those technical closures until the economy starts moving again, and it will. At that time, there will be a queue of technically closed deals awaiting business closure.
Sales VPs, I wouldn’t be so quick to lay off SEs during a down time. There’s plenty for them to do.