Active-duty troops, some DOD employees could work without pay during government shutdown, Pentagon says
Stars and Stripes September 19, 2023
WASHINGTON — The U.S. military will keep active-duty troops and a limited number of civilian defense employees at their posts during a federal government shutdown, Pentagon officials have said. But they might have to go without pay until lawmakers reach a budget agreement.
The Defense Department has yet to elaborate on how it’s preparing for a possible shutdown, but officials have released an outline of what the situation could look like if Congress lets the fiscal year end on Sept. 30 without approving at least temporary funding for the government.
“The department will continue to defend the nation and conduct ongoing military operations,” the Pentagon wrote in a guidance document on preparing for a possible shutdown. “[The military] will continue activities funded with any available budgetary resources that have not lapsed, as well as excepted activities such as those necessary for the safety of human life and the protection of property.”
Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the top Pentagon spokesman, said it is difficult for the military to plan without reliable funds.
“We are, of course, hopeful that Congress can reach a funding agreement before the end of the [fiscal] year,” he said. “We do need predictable, adequate and sustained and timely funding.”
The threat of a shutdown is being instigated by the Freedom Caucus, a group of a few dozen Republican lawmakers in the House who have threatened to withhold funding unless certain demands are met. One is the closure of the Pentagon’s Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Another demand calls for resuming construction of a wall along the U.S. and Mexico border. Other complaints include the Justice Department’s actions against former President Donald Trump and restricting military aid to Ukraine.
The shutdown also could affect pay for troops. However, a Pentagon official who spoke on condition of anonymity said troops and civilian defense workers who are deemed “essential” would receive back pay once a shutdown ends and new funding is approved.
“Members of the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force and Space Force are not guaranteed to be paid during a funding lapse,” said Brian Kelly, president of Military Officers Association of America, a nonprofit group that supports troops and a strong national defense. “Lapses in compensation to essential services stymie the ability to grow, equip and maintain the force necessary to meet national security needs and jeopardize retention, recruitment and the readiness of our all-volunteer uniformed services.”
Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the top Democrat of the House Armed Services Committee, underscored the impact a shutdown would have on the armed forces, especially because some congressional Republicans are upset with the Pentagon over an abortion policy and claims of other types of “wokeism” — a catch-all term that refers to progressive initiatives.
“Troops literally don’t know when they’re going to get paid again,” Smith said last week about the impact of a shutdown on military pay. “No one is going to be happy not knowing if and when they’re going to get paid again. It would be unbelievably disruptive to the ability of our servicemen and women to do their jobs and protect our country.”
There are about 804,000 civilian defense employees, according to the Pentagon’s planning document. Roughly 166,000 of them don’t rely on congressional funding and would continue to work during a shutdown. Almost 200,000 of them would have to keep working without pay because they’re considered “necessary to protect life and property.” The document also lays out additional effects of a shutdown, including restrictions on permanent changes of duty stations and emergency furloughs for hundreds of thousands of nonessential civilian workers.
“Civilian personnel … who are not necessary to carry out or support excepted activities, are to be furloughed,” the 14-page document states. “Only the minimum number of civilian employees necessary to carry out excepted activities will be [exempted] from furlough.”
Pentagon spokeswoman Sabrina Singh said: “If there is a shutdown, we will take the proper measures to ensure we can keep operating.”
Some troops and civilian workers might be able to withstand a gap in pay, but some might not, said Mark Cancian, senior international security adviser of the Center For Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.
“It would be hard for those living paycheck to paycheck,” he said. “For those at the GS-15 [pay] level, that might not be a problem.”
The last lengthy shutdown that affected the Defense Department stretched about two weeks in 2013, and troops’ pay was not affected because Congress passed a law beforehand that ensured paychecks would not be disrupted. It remains to be seen whether lawmakers will pass a similar statute this time to protect pay for troops.
The importance of uninterrupted pay was also demonstrated during the most recent shutdown in late 2018 and early 2019, when Coast Guard members went more than a month without seeing any money. That congressional stalemate did not impact the Defense Department, but the Coast Guard operates under the Department of Homeland Security, which was affected. Some Coast Guard members were forced to borrow money to pay bills, and some even resorted to food banks to feed their families.
“Congress can’t get their act together,” the wife of a Coast Guardsman in California told NBC News at the time. “I’ve had several moms of my kid’s friends call and say, ‘We’re here for you. What can we do, anything that you guys need we’ll do it,’”
Last week, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a law that would prevent the Coast Guard from being left out again. If passed, it will guarantee uninterrupted pay for the Coast Guard if the Pentagon again receives an exception for troops’ pay during a shutdown.
“The men and women who tirelessly protect our shores and risk their lives for all of us should never go without a paycheck,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, a sponsor of the bill.
“It is our duty to make sure they always get their paychecks and can put food on the table, regardless of any political fights in Washington,” said Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., another sponsor.
House Speaker Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said he is aiming for a vote Wednesday on a Defense Department spending bill and a government-wide stopgap funding measure on Thursday, The Associated Press reported Monday. If the defense spending bill passed Congress, troops would receive normal pay during a shutdown.
A government shutdown could also affect other areas of the military. Cancian, who was chief of the Force Structure and Investment Division at the Office of Management and Budget during the last shutdown in 2019, said one example would be the internal disruption to armed forces stationed around the world. Instead of guarding against outside threats, he said troops would be forced to look inward at the problems that come with a shutdown, such as restrictions on personnel movements and postponements of new programs.
The Pentagon’s planning document also states training and military exercises that are “required to achieve and maintain operational readiness” would be exempt from a shutdown. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has the authority to determine which exercises meet that definition, such as operations and training related to Ukraine. The Pentagon, for example, is about to start training Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16 jets at military bases in Texas and Arizona. If Austin declares that training to be necessary, it would continue in the event of a shutdown.
Congress could sidestep a shutdown with a stopgap measure known as a continuing resolution, or CR. A continuing resolution would, for a short time, keep funding the government at 2023 levels while Congress works to pass fiscal 2024 funding bills. But Pentagon officials said that could also present problems for the military.
“The CRs are essentially Band-Aid solutions,” Singh said. “They don’t allow us to start up any new programs.”
“All CRs have a very negative impact,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said this month during a television interview. “They’re very inefficient, they delay modernization, they delay increases in programs that are in production, and they make it very difficult for us to plan and move forward.”
The concerns about a shutdown come at a time when the Pentagon is already dealing with another politically driven problem — getting officers promoted and moved into new leadership roles. Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., has been blocking military promotions since February as a protest of a Pentagon policy that gives service members time off and travel reimbursement for reproductive health services, including abortions. Many military leaders, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, have said Tuberville’s hold is compromising global military readiness and national security.
Several top military leaders, including Air Force Gen. Charles Brown, the nominee to become the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are being affected by Tuberville’s hold. The list of stalled nominations has grown to include the chief of staff for the Army, the chief of naval operations, the commandant of the Marine Corps and about 300 additional positions.
Yet another issue already plaguing the military is recruiting trouble. The leaders of the Army, Air Force and Navy have all said they will miss their enlistment goals for 2023 by several thousand recruits each. When the Coast Guard went without pay during the last shutdown in 2019, it hindered recruiting efforts.
“I don’t know what the breaking point is but if you can’t put fuel in an aircraft and you can’t put food on the ships … it’s hard to maintain recruitment,” retired Vice Adm. Peter Neffenger, former vice commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, said at the time. “There is a point at which you have to take care of yourself.”