U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said Tuesday that with Congress’ help the Pentagon was able to find enough savings in its budget to cut civilian furloughs from 11 days to six.
The announcement, which signaled a small victory in a budget cycle officials have described as the “most volatile and uncertain” in Defense Department history, was cheered at Fort Gordon, where an 11-day furlough approved by Hagel in May has at times forced employees to double their workload for 20 percent less pay, said Garrison Commander Bob Barker.
According to the announcement released Tuesday, the last furlough day for most Fort Gordon staff will be Aug. 13.
“Although it will take time for official instructions to reach us through our chain of command, this is obviously welcome news,” Barker said in a statement. “We have important work to do at Fort Gordon, and the full-time return of the workforce will enable us to accomplish our critical missions on behalf of the armed forces and the nation.”
In a message to all of the Defense Department’s 650,000 civilian workers, Hagel explained how his staff found the savings needed to meet $37 billion in cuts mandated by sequestration.
When sequestration took effect March 1, the Defense Department faced cuts of more than $30 billion in its budget for day-to-day operating costs and the possibility of forcing civilian employees to take up to 22 days of unpaid leave.
In early January, military leaders began civilian hiring freezes, layoffs of temporary workers, significant cuts in facilities maintenance and more. They also sharply cut training.
But by early May, senior defense leaders still faced day-to-day budgetary shortfalls of $11 billion.
“At that point I decided that cutting any deeper into training and maintenance would jeopardize our core readiness mission and national security, which is why I announced furloughs of 11 days,” Hagel said.
Hoping to be able to reduce furloughs, Hagel said his staff submitted a large reprogramming proposal to Congress in May, asking elected officials to let the Defense Department move funds from acquisition accounts into day-to-day operations.
“Congress approved most of this request in late July, and we are working with them to meet remaining needs,” Hagel said. “We are also experiencing less-than-expected costs in some areas, such as transportation of equipment out of Afghanistan. … And the furloughs have saved us money.”
However, with fiscal year 2014 two months away, the Defense Department still faces major fiscal challenges, he said.
If Congress does not change the Budget Control Act, the secretary said, his department will be forced to cut an additional $52 billion starting Oct. 1.
U.S. Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., who last month had an amendment approved to prohibit furloughs from taking place in the next fiscal year, was partially pleased with the development.
“This is a great first step for the folks in the 12th District, but I won’t be
satisfied until we do away with these furloughs altogether,” he said in a statement.
Barrow said there is a bipartisan consensus in the House of Representatives that Congress can more efficiently cut federal spending than a sequester.
“Folks who work at Fort Gordon, and in military installations all across the country, are paying the price for a broken system in Washington,” he said in the statement. “That’s not fair and that’s not smart. We need to do all we can to make sure we cut spending in the right places, and not from the folks we rely on for our national security.”