By PHILIP EWING
The Pentagon said Tuesday it’s reducing furlough days from 11 to six for this fiscal year, but despite the near-term reprieve for its enormous workforce, there was little optimism about a break in Washington’s broader deadlock over resolving sequestration.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a message to DoD workers that the Pentagon’s reprogramming request from earlier this year and “aggressive action” in transferring funds, as well as the previous furloughs themselves, had saved enough money to cut back on the involuntary days off.
Even so, he warned that unless Congress undoes sequestration, he cannot promise there won’t be furloughs or worse in fiscal year 2014. In fact, department leaders have previously warned the Pentagon might even need to resort to involuntary job and troop cuts, or “reductions in force.”
“This has been one of the most volatile and uncertain budget cycles the Department of Defense has ever experienced,” Hagel said. “Our fiscal planning has been conducted under a cloud of uncertainty with the imposition of sequestration and changing rules as Congress made adjustments to our spending authorities.”
The $52 billion cut that DoD faces in fiscal 2014 would be even harder to absorb than the approximately $37 billion it lost this year, Hagel said. “Facing this uncertainty, I cannot be sure what will happen next year, but I want to assure our civilian employees that we will do everything possible to avoid more furloughs.”
One of the largest unions that represents DoD workers, the American Federation of Government Employees, hailed Hagel’s announcement but restated its opposition to any furloughs at all.
“AFGE has argued from the start that the Department of Defense furloughs were always the worst possible way for the department to absorb sequestration’s cuts,” said union President David Cox. “The secretary’s announcement suggests that he has finally realized that furloughs are costly in terms of dollars, readiness and morale.”
Cox sounded a theme that has been echoed across the board by critics of DoD’s furloughs — that they’re more about trying to scare politicians on the other side of the Potomac than they are about saving money.
“The hardworking men and women who support our military were exploited by Pentagon officials to send a political message to Congress about sequestration,” he said. “Now that these same officials have admitted that the furlough was unnecessary, the only fair thing to do is to make full financial restitution to the employees who were harmed.”
That appears unlikely, but other critics agreed that the furloughs have been a mistake.
Ohio GOP Rep. Mike Turner said in an announcement that he’d met with furloughed workers at Dayton’s Wright-Patterson Air Force Base on Monday.
The workers “told of 5-foot-high weeds, closed bathroom facilities and other workplace maintenance lapses,” his office said. “Many of these workers, who typically work 50-60 hours a week, have seen their work weeks cut to 32 hours under sequestration. The shortened work weeks along with the fact that employees are furloughed on different days, means that tasks aren’t being completed.”
Turner blasted the effects of the days off and lost pay on workers he said wanted only to do their jobs helping protect the United States.
“These are people who are dedicated to their mission of ensuring the security of our nation,” he said. “The conditions being imposed on them are wrong and unfair. Not only are they being told to take a pay cut, but they are also subject to conditions which depress morale. The loss of confidence and pride suffered by these employees will take years to restore.”
The reactions Tuesday underscored the Pentagon’s political dilemma. If, as its critics say, it banked on using furloughs as a lever to move Congress toward a sequestration deal, that appears to have fizzled.
DoD also did not appear to have much success moving the needle with its latest dire warnings about the long-term dangers of sequestration, which Hagel delivered last week along with Vice Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. James Winnefeld. The two leaders warned sequestration might mean choosing between a larger force with older equipment — which could endanger troops — or a smaller, high-tech military — which might not be able to handle a major threat. But Congress quit town with little hope of a deal by Oct. 1.
Now, DoD appears to be taking another parallel tack: It may be hoping that more national and local news headlines about sequestration will prompt pressure from voters when members of Congress are in their districts during the summer recess.
On Monday, Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter gave an interview to USA Today in which he warned about the troop cuts and civilian workforce reductions possible under a continued sequestration. It was a familiar message for the Beltway audience, but defense officials likely hoped that its publication in Gannett-owned newspapers around the U.S. would get the warning in front of home-town audiences.
“There is danger,” Carter told the newspaper. “There is risk associated with behaving in such a cavalier fashion with respect to spending for national defense.”