A group of Senate Republicans on Thursday rolled out their own proposal to rescue the Defense Department from another half trillion dollars in “sequestration” cuts. Like a similar bill circulating in the House, the measure would place the short-term deficit reduction burden entirely on the federal workforce.
The GOP offering was led by Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl, who said that Congress cannot delay action to pull DoD out from under the threat of further budget cuts. The Pentagon already is planning to implement cutbacks of $487 billion compared with its previously-planned spending over the next 10 years. Because of the failure of the deficit-cutting supercommittee to find a package of $1.2 trillion in government-wide cutbacks, DoD will get hit with another $492 billion in cuts that will begin to take effect this fall without changes to current law.
The Senate GOP proposal would cut back the total federal workforce through an across-the-board partial hiring freeze. It would require that only two federal employees be hired for every three that leave until the federal workforce is 5 percent smaller than today’s numbers. It also would leave the federal pay freeze in place through mid-2014.
“This is a common sense proposal,” McCain said. “We’ve rushed to this decision because the Pentagon must begin planning now for what they’re going to do next year. So if these cuts are enacted, they would have to plan on that at a very early occasion.” McCain is the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee; Kyl is the second-highest ranking member of the Senate’s GOP leadership. They were joined at a news conference to announce the proposal by Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.).
Like its House counterpart, the Senate measure would only put off sequestration for one year. Backers argue it would at least buy time for Congress to take an incremental approach to the 10-year budget cutting the supercommittee failed to accomplish while sparing DoD from what Pentagon leaders and many lawmakers say would be “draconian” cuts.
The “pay-for” would be the federal workforce. GOP senators said they would make up for the first year of sequestration by shaving $110 billion from the federal payroll. Their measure would scale back the total federal workforce through attrition and extend the existing federal pay freeze.
Kyl said the bill would provide enough savings to cancel the first year of sequestration not just for DoD, but also for non-Defense discretionary accounts.
“In order for this to be successful, this exercise will have to be bipartisan,” he said. “That’s why we haven’t just focused on Defense. We know a lot of our Democratic colleagues care a lot about the non-Defense spending, as do we. So this would be the first year in a 10-year plan. If we could agree to two or three years, that would be even better. But we thought we’d better start now.”
Pelosi calls plan ‘skullduggery’
So far, Congressional Democrats and the White House aren’t biting. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called the proposal “skullduggery,” going back on the debt deal Congress agreed to in the Budget Control Act last summer.
“A commitment was made, an agreement was reached and I think it is wrong for them to say we’re just not going to honor the commitment,” she said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the President will only agree to undo sequestration if Congress can find a balanced approach to deficit reduction.
“It can’t be that some members of Congress promised to their constituents, promised to America in the Budget Control Act, ‘Look at what we’ve done, we’re holding our own feet to the fire, my fellow Americans.’ And then a few months later decide, ‘We really didn’t mean it, let’s change it,'” Carney said.
In a letter to President Obama, 127 House Democrats wrote that the automatic cuts should not be repealed or changed unless Congress comes up with a broader deficit-cutting plan of at least $1.2 trillion.
“The failure of Congress to act must have consequences,” said the lawmakers, led by Reps. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) and George Miller (D-Calif.). They promised to uphold a veto if the bill was sent to the President.
“On attrition, the President suggests that’s the way to reduce the workforce in the Department of Commerce, for example. If we can do it in that department, we can surely do it in others,” Kyl said. “There surely is a place to save some money here by attiriting some federal employees. In my home state of Arizona, our state employees have gone five full years without a pay raise. So we think federal employees, who have a much better package of benefits and on average, a higher compensation level than people in the private sector, can do much more to help us meet this important goal.”
Kyl’s comments were based on recent studies by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, and the Congressional Budget Office. Federal unions have strongly criticized the methodologies and conclusions of both reports.
Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, also criticized the new Senate GOP proposal.
“It is Groundhog Day, so it should come as no surprise that once again the Republican leadership is introducing yet another bill to freeze federal employee pay and cut the federal workforce,” she said in a statement. “Americans who rely on the public services provided by federal employees would feel the impact of proposed workforce cuts. Such cuts would result in longer lines and shorter hours as well as longer hold times on the phone when calling for crucial information such as Social Security, Medicare or
Similar to House bill
The new Senate bill is very similar to legislation proposed on the House side of the Capitol in December by Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. McKeon issued a statement praising the Senate bill, while calling it an imperfect but realistic solution.
McKeon and other members of Congress also are signaling that they’re planning to fight some of DoD’s existing plans to find the $487 billion in cost savings it’s already been tasked with. He told an audience earlier this week that he’ll block a DoD proposal to ask for another round of Defense base realignments and closures.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) also is skeptical.
“I have serious questions about whether BRAC ever sees savings,” she said. “We say that BRAC’s going to avoid the politics, but sometimes there’s more politics with BRAC, and I’ve seen it up close and personal. Why are we doing it? We’re doing it to save money, and past processes have shown us that we’re not going to save money through BRAC.”
DoD officials disagree. The Air Force, for example, says it already has at least 20 percent more base infrastructure than it needs.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Pentagon leaders strove to carefully balance the cuts they’ll propose later this month. He warned that Congress should think twice about upsetting that balance.
“For those that would say, ‘We don’t want you to tinker with infrastructure,’ I would say, OK. Where do you want me to tinker? Do you want me to tinker with manpower costs? Hell, you just told me not to screw around with pay, compensation, healthcare and retirement. So I can’t touch that,” Dempsey said in a speech at the Reserve Officers Association on Thursday.
“What about force structure? People say that’s too hard, you can’t take that brigade out of fort ‘X’. And by the way, I didn’t pass the Budget Control Act. I didn’t say, hey, how about hitting me with a bill for $500 billion,” Dempsey said. “So this is about taking the task, finding $487 billion, and applying as proportionally as we can. And part of that is getting our infrastructure under control. We may get told, ‘Sorry, you can’t do it.’ But we’ve got to make it clear that if you withhold my ability to balance this whole thing, you may get hit with some problems that you don’t want to face downstream.”
This story is part of Federal News Radio’s daily DoD Report. For more defense news, click here.
Tom Temin is the host of The Federal Drive, which airs from 6-9 a.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, DC region and online everywhere. Tom has 30 years experience in journalism, mostly in technology markets. Before coming to Federal News Radio, he was a long-serving editor-in-chief of Government Computer News and Washington Technology magazines.