Unless Congress makes a surprise move to change sequestration, most of DoD’s civilian workforce will be furloughed for one day a week beginning in mid-to-late June. But, the Pentagon is promising there will be no furloughs in 2014 regardless of what happens with its budget.
Congress’ recent passage of a full-year budget for DoD allowed the Pentagon to modify its civilian furlough plans for 2013. Rather than putting employees on unpaid leave for 22 days this year, the furloughs now will last for up to 14 days. They’ll stretch from this summer until the end of September, but not a moment longer, according to DoD Comptroller Bob Hale.
“We will look for other options. They may not be pleasant, and they may force us into some difficult choices. But we definitely don’t want to repeat what we’re doing now,” he said. Budgets for DoD and the rest of government are considerably uncertain in 2014 and beyond. Under current law, sequestration is still in effect, reducing governmentwide discretionary budget caps by an additional $110 billion per year, roughly doubling the reductions federal agencies have already implemented under the first round of discretionary budget cuts mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act.
The budget President Barack Obama will submit on Apr. 10 will presume that he and Congress will find a way to repeal sequestration in the coming months and will propose funding levels that are above the additional sequestration caps. If that prediction is correct, DoD’s workforce picture will largely return to normal, Hale said.
If sequestration stays in effect, however, things will have to change but the department still will not engage in furloughs. Instead, he said, it would take other measures to more permanently downsize the workforce.
“The President will propose a budget that complies with the Budget Control Act, and it will include levels of spending that we think are reasonable for the Department of Defense. If that budget is turned down though, and we have to live with sequester-level cuts, we’re going to have to look at other longer-term choices besides furloughs,” Hale told a Web conference organized by the Association of Government Accountants. “The substitute may be reductions in force and involuntary separations, unfortunately, but we want to start doing this with more of a scalpel and less of a meat axe. We’ll have to get smaller and we’ll have to look at some areas where we can take some more risk, get rid of more overhead and make a lot of other tough decisions. But we’re not going to have a repeat of this mess.”
Things are expected to become easier after 2013
If long-term sequestration carries any silver lining for agencies, it’s that things will become easier to manage after 2013. While budgets would be cut across government for the next 10 years, the reductions would be of a different flavor.
For 2013, sequestration was designed to punish Congress for failing to agree on a consensus deficit reduction plan by imposing indiscriminate and intentionally-damaging reductions across-the-board. In 2014 and beyond, agencies will still have to live with significantly lower budgets, but they will at least be able to prioritize their spending plans.
“It doesn’t play out in 2014 on the discretionary side as a cut in every single program, project and activity,” said Danny Werfel, the controller at the Office of Management and Budget. “But I still think it’s very difficult, and it’s pretty big pill to swallow for Defense to take an additional $55 billion reduction each year, and it’s potentially going to have very significant impacts. I think that’s something we need to look to in terms of how we run 2014. We’ve got our hands full with 2013 right now, but I think with the release of the President’s budget in the coming weeks, it will inspire people to come up with a balanced approach and get rid of the sequester.”
Even if sequestration is gotten rid of, Hale said DoD recognizes it needs to take further steps to reduce its ongoing, structural expenses in the “out years.” While he declined to provide many details about the 2014 budget proposal in advance of its official Apr. 10 release, he signaled that the Pentagon will ask for another round of base realignments and closures — an idea Congress shot down just last year.
“We need to consolidate infrastructure. We’re committed to doing that and BRAC’s about the only way do to it,” he said.
While DoD will have more budget flexibility next year, one way or another, officials argue that they’ll be devoting a lot of effort trying to recover from the damage sequestration will have done already with its across-the-board cuts in 2013, a process that will only be harder if the spending caps stay in place.
“We made immediate and large cuts in our operation and maintenance budget in things like our base operations support and facilities. Some people might call that overhead, but it’s very important to our long-term ability to fight. Then we cut back on training,” he said. “This is very painful. We’re dismantling the readiness of a military we’ve built up carefully for four years under this administration and the work that previous administrations have done before us. It’s highly frustrating. We moved to furloughs because it was one of the only ways we could quickly cut back on O&M spending, so we’re getting rid of people that we need right now. It’s just a very distasteful task.”
The Pentagon says while the cuts will certainly have an impact on military readiness this year, the budget Congress passed may have helped by offsetting some of the shortfalls in its operating and maintenance accounts. Officials expect to complete an analysis of those readiness impacts within the next two weeks.