By Jeremy Herb
The Pentagon announced Tuesday that it will furlough more than three-quarters of its 800,000 civilian employees for 11 days to fulfill the automatic budget cuts under sequestration.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he decided to furlough Pentagon civilians this year because deeper cuts to other parts of the budget could have jeopardized national security.
“We got to a point where we couldn’t responsibly go any deeper into cutting without jeopardizing core missions,” Hagel said. “I can’t run this institution into the ditch.”
Hagel said the Pentagon would begin furloughing roughly 680,000 civilian employees on July 8, with furloughs occurring one day per week through the end of the fiscal year in September.
The money saved by furloughing workers is to fulfill $37 billion in across-the-board budget cuts for the last five months of the fiscal year, according to the department’s memorandum explaining the move.
The Pentagon is facing a $30 billion shortfall in its operations and maintenance accounts, which funds the civilian workforce, with the cuts hitting both the base and war budgets.
Senior defense officials said the furloughs would save $1.8 billion in 2013. Military personnel accounts are exempt from sequester, so service members are not facing furloughs.
The furloughs have been one of the most visible effects of sequestration on the Pentagon, which has long warned of the “devastating” impact of the cuts.
Republicans blasted the Obama administration on the heels of the furlough announcement and blamed the president for the failure to stop the cuts.
“The pain from the first two rounds of President Obama’s defense cuts are now being felt. Furloughs are just the beginning,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said in a statement.
Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.), the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the civilian furloughs were “shameful and irresponsible.”
“Secretary Hagel’s announcement today that the full impact of the administration’s failure to plan for the budget cuts from sequestration will now be borne on the backs of dedicated DOD civilian employees,” said Inhofe, who has pushed to give the Pentagon greater flexibility for making the sequester cuts.
Democrats, who argue Republicans are also responsible because they voted for the sequester, said that the furloughs show Congress needs to take action to stop the cuts once and for all.
“Being able to manage it to 11 is better than the first impression,” said Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), the No. 2 Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee. “But the effects are becoming more and more pronounced, and they get worse as it goes on. So I think that’s reason to find ways to end it.”
A senior defense official told reporters at a background briefing that the decision to furlough employees was “not politically motivated,” and it was only made as a last option when no further cuts to training or maintenance could be made.
The Pentagon had initially threatened this year to furlough civilians for 22 days. It reduced the number to 14 in March after a full-year Defense appropriations bill was passed that moved additional funds into operations accounts.
Hagel announced the furloughs Tuesday before a crowd of civilian Pentagon employees at the MARK Center in Alexandria, Va., and struck an apologetic tone.
He left open the door that the furlough days could be further reduced if the budget situation changes, but he did not express much optimism that it would happen.
“If we can do better, then we might be in position to be able to knock that back. I can’t promise that, and I won’t promise that,” Hagel said.
The Defense secretary said that all the military services would be treated fairly in the way the furloughs are implemented, which seemed to be a response to Navy officials who had said they believed they could achieve necessary budget reductions without furloughs.
“We’ve got to be fair, and everybody has to be treated the same,” Hagel said. “I can’t allow this great institution … to get picked apart inside by each other.”
The Pentagon did grant exceptions to the furloughs, however, including civilians who work in Navy shipyards.
A memorandum released by the Defense Department said shipyards were exempted because “it would be particularly difficult to make up delays in maintenance work on these vessels and these vessels are critical to mission success.”
Lawmakers with local ties to shipyards — who had lobbied against the furloughs — cheered the Pentagon’s decision.
“This exemption should allow the workers at our four public shipyards, including Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, to continue their critical work maintaining our nation’s naval readiness without interruption,” New Hampshire Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D) and Kelly Ayotte (R) said in a joint statement.
A number of other civilians are also exempt, whether by law or because they are deemed essential to core missions. Those working in combat zones, some medical personnel and civilians who required Senate confirmation — including Hagel himself — are exempt.
Hagel and a number of other top Pentagon leaders, including the service secretaries and Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter, have said they will take a pay cut equivalent to the pay lost by furloughed civilians.
In all, 120,000 civilians will be exempt from furloughs, defense officials said, a number that includes 50,000 foreign nationals working overseas.
The Pentagon’s 2014 proposed budget is $52 billion above the caps under sequestration, and at the moment there is little momentum in Congress to reverse the cuts.
Pentagon officials have said they will try to avoid civilian furloughs in 2014, but on Tuesday the senior defense official said they remained a possibility.
“We can’t rule out furloughs, but we’re sure going to do [our] darnedest to avoid them,” the official said.
— Published at 3:15 p.m. and has been updated.