WASHINGTON — Most of the Pentagon’s civilian employees will face a furlough in the coming months if the planned across-the-board budget cuts come to pass on March 1, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta warned Congress on Wednesday.
About 750,000 civilians would experience pay cuts of about 20 percent between late April and September, Pentagon officials warned, if the department is required to cut $46 billion over the remainder of the 2013 fiscal year. The furloughs could come in the form of a four-day workweek.
”We feel we don’t have any choice than to impose furloughs,” Robert Hale, the department’s chief financial officer, said during a briefing. “We can’t do reductions in force.”
In addition to the potential effect of the automatic, across-the-board cuts, known as “sequestration,” Pentagon officials are also concerned about cuts that would be required if Congress fails to replace a stopgap spending measure, called the continuing resolution, with a bill that offers more long-term certainty.
In describing the potential consequences of both outcomes, Pentagon officials appeared to be walking a line between scaring lawmakers into action and hurting military morale.
”The effects of sequestration and the continuing resolution on our military personnel will be devastating, but on our civilians, it will be catastrophic,” said Jessica Wright, the undersecretary for personnel and readiness. “Our guiding principle throughout this process will be to lessen the impacts wherever we can.”
Adding his voice to the budget debate, Secretary of State John Kerry said the fiscal impasse is a serious threat to American credibility around the world.
“Think about it: It is hard to tell the leadership of any number of countries that they have to resolve their economic issues if we don’t resolve our own,” Kerry said Wednesday at the University of Virginia.
House Speaker John Boehner put the blame on President Barack Obama and said he agrees with Panetta that automatic spending cuts would devastate the military.
The furloughs would not apply to those in uniform, and for civilians, there would be some exceptions, including for those deployed in combat zones, those “required to maintain safety of life or property” (like some police officers on military bases), foreign nationals and political appointees exempt by law.
More than 80 percent of the Pentagon’s civilian employees work outside the Washington area, and California and Virginia would probably be hardest hit, officials said.
Civilians play a wide variety of roles in the military, including repairing tanks and equipment, teaching in military schools and working in suicide prevention centers. Forty percent of the Defense Department’s medical providers are civilians.
The furloughs would provide only 10 percent of the savings the Pentagon would need, about $4 billion to $5 billion. Among a host of other measures would be cuts in Training that could leave two-thirds of Army combat brigade teams not deployed in Afghanistan at “unacceptable levels of readiness” by the end of the year, Hale said.