WASHINGTON — Through months of hand-wringing over automatic budget cuts facing the federal government, the Defense Department has insisted that most of its 800,000 civilian employees, including nearly 7,000 in Maine, will feel the same pain if the department decides to furlough its workers.
But as the Pentagon approaches its planned date in early May for issuing notices to begin furloughs in June, it faces pressure from inside and outside the department to rethink its plans.
A bipartisan group of 126 House members wrote last week to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warning that the department’s personnel plans “are threatening to undermine mission performance and, as a result, mission readiness.”
The lawmakers urged that the Pentagon “make merit-based versus indiscriminate decisions on furloughs . . . and that managers be allowed the discretion to make offsetting cuts to comply with sequestration.”
Sens. Susan Collins, R, and Angus King, I, of Maine wrote a similar letter April 17, noting that the defense appropriations bill passed by Congress in March gave the department authority “to make smart budget decisions that are tailored to the unique requirements and budget realities of each military service.”
“If the Department of the Navy or any other DoD component has determined that the costs of furloughs to its readiness and budget are greater than the savings they would produce, they should be able to avoid them,” Collins and King wrote.
“It’s the idea of shared sacrifice and shared pain, which doesn’t necessarily translate to good policy,” said Todd Harrison, senior fellow for defense budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
The Navy has said it can make the cuts needed without furloughs, while the Army thinks the war in Afghanistan and other priorities make it nearly impossible to make the cuts without furloughs.
The Pentagon, focused on maintaining rough consistency in furloughs across the department, is trying to figure out how to balance the services’ varied perspectives. It’s likely to authorize military departments and defense agencies to exempt a limited number of mission-critical jobs, officials said.
“We would like to see consistency and fairness, because if we’re gonna have to jump into this pool, we’d like to jump together,” Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale told a congressional panel recently.
Each of the military services faces different budget pressures brought on by sequestration, other cuts to the budget and the costs of overseas operations.
“In the issue of furloughs, you won’t get a one size fits all,” Gen. John Paxton, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, told the Senate Armed Services Committee April 18.
The Navy has said it can find other cuts in its budget to make up the $300 million it would save in furloughing approximately 200,000 Navy and Marine Corps civilians. The service is particularly concerned about 30,000 shipyard workers on nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines. If they are furloughed, the Navy said, vessels will stay at the shipyards longer and costs will increase.
Navy civilians are not happy at the idea of being furloughed to maintain Defense Department consistency.
“The Navy is saying we don’t need to furlough, so why are we furloughing?” said Debbie Jennings, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, which represents 1,600 employees who work on nuclear submarines at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine. “It doesn’t make sense at all.”
Army officials think the service cannot make the sequester cuts without furloughs. The Army bears the major responsibility for wrapping up combat operations in Afghanistan and removing troops and equipment by the end of 2014. “The Army has taken the brunt in Afghanistan,” Hagel told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The Army estimates that it would save more than $727 million with two weeks of furloughs for approximately 250,000 civilians. If the furloughs are not allowed, the cuts would instead potentially “eat up $700 million” needed for other operations, Gen. John Campbell, vice chief of staff for the Army, told the Senate committee .
Stopping civilian furloughs is less of a priority for the Army than supporting troops in Afghanistan and being prepared for contingencies in places such as North Korea, he said. “We just have to rack and stack that way,” Campbell said.
The Marine Corps also faces high war costs, but because its budget is part of the Navy Department, it does not have the same fiscal constraints.
The Air Force estimates that it will save $409 million by furloughing its 180,000 civilians for 14 days. To save money, the service is standing down 13 fighter and bomber squadrons, and is reluctant to cut any further. “We’re already curtailing flying hours to the point that we’re in uncharted waters,” said Lt. Col. John Dorrian, an Air Force spokesman.
Part of the dilemma for the Air Force is that civilian furloughs will have a direct impact on the readiness of aircraft. At a hearing last week before a House Armed Services subcommittee, the Air Force warned that furloughs will be “especially crippling” at its maintenance depots, where 77 percent of the workforce is civilian.
Brandon Copeland, a planner with the 564th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma, faces furlough along with his wife, who works for another squadron at the base. “It’s really a double hit on our income,” said Copeland, 33, who noted that he and his wife have two children in day care.
But Copeland expressed more concern about the impact furloughs will have on the work of his squadron in maintaining KC-135 refueling aircraft, which he said would have to spend more time grounded.
“It will make a tremendous difference in how quickly we can do our job,” he said. “This aircraft is essential to providing global reach for the Air Force.”