JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. – The audience gasped in surprise and gave a few low whistles as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel delivered the news that furloughs, which have forced a 20 percent pay cut on most of the military’s civilian work force, probably will continue next year, and it might get worse.
“Those are the facts of life,” Hagel told about 300 Defense Department employees, most of them middle-aged civilians, last week at an Air Force reception hall on a military base in Charleston.
Future layoffs also are possible for the department’s civilian work force of more than 800,000 employees, Hagel said, if Congress fails to stem the cuts in the next budget year, which starts Oct. 1.
On the heels of the department’s first furlough day, and in three days of visits with members of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, Hagel played the unenviable role of messenger to a frustrated and fearful work force coping with the inevitability of a spending squeeze at the end of more than a decade of constant and costly war.
In Maine, more than 2,000 civilian defense employees began taking furlough days earlier this month at a rate of one day per week through the end of September.
That figure could have been much higher, but the Pentagon excluded more than 4,000 workers at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery whose jobs were deemed “critical” to maintaining the military readiness of the Navy’s nuclear-powered submarine fleet.
Even so, nearly 700 support employees at the Kittery shipyard are being required to take days off without pay because of the automatic cuts known as “sequestration.” The other Maine workers being furloughed this year work with the Maine Army or Air National Guard, the U.S. Army, the Defense Finance and Accounting Service in Limestone, or in the Supervisor of Shipbuilding office at Bath Iron Works, a private shipyard that builds Navy destroyers.
It is unclear how the budget cuts would be carried out next year, or their impact on Maine.
Hagel’s pessimistic remarks could be an attempt to increase pressure on Congress, which has shown little urgency to address sequestration. Republicans and Democrats disagreed over how to replace the $1.2 trillion in cuts called for over 10 years.
Senate Democrats have passed a budget that would repeal the automatic spending cuts in part by increasing taxes on the wealthy. But the budget barely passed on a party-line vote — with some Democrats opposing it — and will not pass in the Republican-controlled House.
Other lawmakers have put forward their own proposed fixes to the sequester. Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, co-sponsored a bill with Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado that would give the executive branch more flexibility to work with Congress to make more targeted cuts. Collins was co-author of a similar provision that provided flexibility to the Defense Department in this fiscal year.
But a committee hearing has not been held on the Collins-Udall bill.
The fiscal crunch lays bare the politically unpopular, if perhaps necessary, need to bring runaway military costs in line with most of the rest of the American public, which has been cutting back for years in the sluggish economy.
“Everybody’s bracing for the impact,” Army Master Sgt. Trey Corrales said after Hagel spoke with soldiers during a quick stop at Fort Bragg, N.C.
Corrales’ wife, a military civilian employee, is among those furloughed. They have canceled their cable TV and started carpooling to work to save money.
“The effects of the economy have started to hit the military,” Corrales said. “It was late in coming to us.”
Troops already are facing force reductions, and the Army alone has announced plans to trim its ranks by 80,000 over the next five years.
Officials agree that the military has undergone cycles of expanding and shrinking of the force over generations. Hagel said this time is different, and worse, however, because of what he described as a “very dark cloud” of uncertainty hanging over the Pentagon as Congress considers whether to reverse $52 billion in spending cuts that are set to go into effect in 2014.
Hagel said he is taking a hard look at where fat can be trimmed from the Pentagon, and that the military has been “guilty of wasting a lot of money on a lot of things.” But he also said he “can’t lead this institution based on hope, based on ‘I think,’ or based on maybe” — and predicted more dollar cuts ahead.