WASHINGTON – Could the furloughs starting next week for nearly 700,000 Defense Department civilians be a dry run for permanent job cuts?
Under current plans, the vast majority of civilian defense workers will stay home one day a week and endure a 20 percent pay cut through September, when the fiscal year ends. The Pentagon says that will save $1.8 billion, helping refill operations and maintenance accounts running dry because of nearly $40 billion in automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.
But if DOD can do without a fifth of its civilian workers for the summer, why can’t it shed workers permanently? That’s a question being asked by a number of defense budget experts.
“This will be a natural experiment – a clumsy one,” said Todd Harrison, senior fellow for defense budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment. “We will see what the effect is on the department’s operations … and in some cases we’re likely to find we can do just fine.”
Harrison’s not the only one saying so. A group of 25 analysts that included former DOD civilian officials and military members said in an open letter to Congress last month that DOD has too many civilian employees.
“From 2001 to 2012, the active duty military grew by just 3.4 percent. Yet over the same timeframe the number of civilian defense employees grew by 17 percent, an increase five times greater than the armed forces,” the group wrote.
Civilian workers and their advocates, however, argue that shedding civilian employees – who’ve labored for years under a pay freeze – will result in work being shifted to more-expensive contractors and ultimately weaken DOD.
"The uniformed personnel and civilian employees are the backbone of the Department of Defense and should serve as the core workforce, not the oxen to be gored," American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox Sr. said in response to the letter.