Pentagon furloughs may be the new normal

Reuters

US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel listens to a question during a town hall meeting at the MARK Center in Alexandria, Virginia May 14, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • There are simply too many civilians employed by DoD and too little money to go around

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  • Pentagon furloughs are only a Band-Aid

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  • The new normal? Pentagon furloughs may be here to stay

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The effects of sequestration – the automatic budget cuts enforced as part of Washington's larger debt reduction efforts – have started to be felt inside the Pentagon. Involuntary days off have begun for the vast majority of the Defense Department's large civilian workforce.

While the impact of unpaid leave on hard-working employees and their families is extremely regrettable, the difficult reality is that these furloughs are not the worst-case scenario. It could get much worse.

The Pentagon civilian workforce has been inexorably growing without adequate shaping or planning under administrations of both political parties over the last decade. As a result, there are simply too many civilians employed by the Defense Department now and too little money to go around. What policymakers fail to acknowledge, however, is this situation could have been avoided.

Even after the recession started in 2008, DoD – America's largest employer – kept growing its already healthy ranks of employed civilians. This workforce has been swelling for the past four years despite the shrinking of defense budgets. And, as the White House cuts active duty military ranks at a fast clip to meet budgetary shortfalls, DoD civilians have yet to see their billets reduced or meaningfully targeted for shrinkage.

Since entering office, President Obama has set in motion a plan to cut the rolls of active duty forces (mostly Marines and soldiers) by about 7 percent. During the same time period, the size of the Pentagon civilian workforce has grown by about 13 percent.

During the Obama administration's first year in office, the Defense Department's civilian workforce grew by nearly 8 percent. This was followed by growth of more than 3 percent between fiscal years 2010 and 2011, and nearly 2 percent growth between 2012 and 2013.

This pattern of unchecked growth has not gone unnoticed and, as budgets have come down, Pentagon leaders have talked about the need to rein in the size of the civilian workforce. But there has been no serious follow-up action.

As former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy wrote recently, "When I served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense in the mid-1990s, the policy organization had fewer than 600 people. When I returned as undersecretary for policy in 2009, the office had grown to nearly 1,000."

Flournoy's concern was echoed by the Secretary of Defense during his first major speech earlier this spring. In his address at the National Defense University, Secretary  Chuck Hagel called for a "hard look" at civilian personnel and their compensation.

The Pentagon's latest budget request regarding the DoD civilian workforce, though, does not reflect these words. While defense leaders are aiming for a possible 5 percent reduction in this workforce over the next five years, the outcome is mostly tied to domestic base closures. And Congress is set to reject, for the second year in a row, the Pentagon's request to close bases.

Even though there seems to be a growing understanding that a Pentagon bureaucracy of this size is simply unsustainable, the dialogue has not lead to real reductions.

The hard truth is that had the Pentagon civilian workforce been appropriately scaled down before the onset of sequestration, it is highly possible that furloughs could have been avoided now.

Furthermore, furloughs are a temporary solution, a Band-Aid. Pentagon leaders had to resort to them because they could not afford the size of their workforce under stricter budget caps. This situation will not change come the start of the new fiscal year. Realistically, even if Defense Department civilians are back at work full-time this fall, there is little reason to expect that sequestration (and the furloughs that come with it) will have been altered or averted. Pentagon leaders will be right back where they started: the Department of Defense civilian workforce will still be too big and too expensive.

Unless officials get serious about proposals to reduce the civilian workforce, furloughs could become the new normal as sequestration makes an encore 2014.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies.

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