WASHINGTON — “Doomsday” is here.
That’s how recently retired Defense Secretary Leon Panetta described the massive, government-wide spending cuts set to take effect Friday, slashing $46 billion out of the Pentagon’s coffers for the remaining seven months of fiscal year 2013.
Unless a bitterly deadlocked Congress takes unexpected, last-minute action and stops the automatic cuts known as “sequestration,” President Barack Obama will issue the order triggering cuts before midnight Friday, as required by federal law.
This apocalypse, however, might arrive more with a whimper than a bang, especially for a Defense Department conditioned by recent preparations for barely averted federal government shutdowns. As one defense department official put, the threat of sequestration is closer to a spreading “fiscal cancer” than sudden cardiac arrest.
The shutdown crises in each of the last three years threatened immediate stoppages of all non-emergency government work. Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would have continued, and emergency workers would have continued reporting for duty, but lights in most government offices in Washington and around the nation would have gone out.
By contrast, sequestration won’t mean lights out for much of anything – not at first anyway.
“Once sequestration is triggered, budgets will immediately be reduced,” said Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Beth Robbins. “However, the practical effects will take some time to be felt across the force.”
In part, this is because the Pentagon has been planning for the 9 percent across-the-board budget cuts that will come with sequestration – not to mention dealing with shortfalls brought on by Congress’s failure to pass a federal budget. That has forced the U.S. government to operate on a continuing resolution that expires in late March.
As a result, cost-cutting measures are under way: travel budgets have been cut, temp workers dismissed, managers across the DOD have been told to conserve funds. Air shows and community activities have been canceled, and servicemembers have even reported difficulty freeing up funds to buy items as seemingly necessary as toilet paper.
Some operations have been affected as well, most notably including the canceled deployment of the USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier to the Middle East in early February.
“The ongoing continuing resolution has already forced us to reduce the rate of spending, and sequestration will accelerate this,” Robbins said.
At ground level throughout the military – from DOD schools to Army test ranges – many questions still have to be answered about how sequestration-induced spending cuts will begin to be implemented on March 2. What’s clear, defense officials say, is that the depth and severity of effects will snowball over time, as the end of the fiscal year approaches and Pentagon piggybanks run dry.
“Not everything will happen Day One, though we’ll have to make some very quick decisions about programs that we may need to pare back and so forth as a result of sequestration,” Pentagon press secretary George Little told reporters Thursday.
The services, all of which will face dire shortfalls in their operations and maintenance accounts under sequestration, say that beginning in March, training on domestic bases will be reduced and crucial maintenance be delayed.
Only the operational needs of the war in Afghanistan and other contingency operations will be exempted, but even there, the Army says, troops may see their deployments extended if money can’t be found to train replacements.
Before the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30, the U.S. military’s overall capability to fight will be seriously degraded, the service chiefs have told Congress repeatedly in recent days.
Meanwhile, one-day-a-week furloughs of most of DOD’s 800,000 civilians will begin in late April, knocking up to a month’s pay off workers’ yearly salaries if Congress doesn’t defuse the doomsday mechanism. DOD said it would notify employees eligible for furlough in middle to late March. Those who not deemed exempt because they are needed for the protection of life or property – the vast majority, officials say -- will receive individual furlough notifications in April.
But with sequestration set to begin eroding the military late Friday, Congress – which hasn’t been able to reach across party lines to agree on much of late – has another serious deadline looming that could divert its attention.
On March 27, the continuing resolution funding government operations expires. If that deadline passes without action, the slow erosion would give way to an overnight shutdown, or the prospect of work without pay, for most of the military.