Pentagon officials on Thursday said they could not rule out more worker furloughs in 2014.
Even as the Pentagon’s leaders announced a reduction in the number of days workers will be furloughed this year, officials said budget uncertainties could lead to more furloughs in the next fiscal year.
DOD officials “will see where we are” at the end of the current fiscal year in September and then begin deciding whether another round of furloughs are necessary to reduce the Pentagon’s budget, a senior Defense Department official said.
Hagel said the reduction in furloughs was “good news” compared to two weeks ago.
“We’re going to be able to reduce and delay these furloughs, but not eliminate furloughs,” Hagel told reporters at a Pentagon press briefing.
Keeping workers at home and not paying them for the 14 days between now and Sept. 30 will save $2.5 billion, Hagel said.
That’s a relatively small portion of the $41 billion cut the Pentagon is taking as part of sequestration, the automatic spending cuts imposed by the White House and Congress as part of a 2011 deal to raise the debt ceiling.
The 22 days of furloughs would have saved the Pentagon about $5 billion, one official said.
A big factor in determining whether there will be more furloughs next year is whether Congress approves a new budget for the Pentagon for 2014.
The budget’s fate could come down to talks on a deficit-reduction package between President Obama and Congress. The nation’s debt ceiling will have to be increased again this summer, and that measure could serve as a vehicle to replace the sequester cuts and firm up the Pentagon’s budget.
Whether Obama and congressional Republicans can reach such an elusive deal is unclear. Both sides have said it would be good to replace the cuts, but Obama wants some tax hikes to be part of a replacement package, while Republicans say different spending cuts are the only option.
The Pentagon is still scrambling over whether additional employees will be exempt from the furloughs.
Defense officials have already exempted 50,000 foreign nationals working at various U.S. military installations worldwide from furloughs, a second Pentagon official told reporters. That move leaves 750,000 DOD civilian employees on the chopping block.
Pentagon leaders are combing the department's workforce to determine if some positions are simply too important to furlough, a second DOD official told reporters.
“We are evaluating what their contribution is to the department,” the official said.
It is also possible that some Defense employees won’t be furloughed for the entire 14 days.
The Pentagon was able to reduce the number of furlough days from 22 to 14 because the government funding measure that passed Congress last week shifted an additional $10 billion into operations and maintenance accounts, which fund civilian pay.
Joints Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey on Thursday urged Congress to provide more flexibility, saying that lawmakers needed to allow the Pentagon to make major structural reforms to really find savings
“We have to reform how we buy weapons and services. We have to reduce redundancy. And we've got to change at some level our compensation structure,” Dempsey said.
“If our elected leaders can help us with full flexibility, our people will do the rest," the four-star general added.