'Sequester' at Pentagon: why furloughs may not be as harmful as predicted

As part of the sequester, the Defense Department began furloughs of civilian employees Monday. The Pentagon has warned of a devastating impact, but at least one analyst suspects that some of the undone work won't be missed.

The Pentagon has long warned of a devastating impact from the “sequester.” So just how dire will the impact be from furloughs of the Defense Department’s civilian employees?

The answer may be that the furloughs – which began Monday – are simply not as calamitous as the Pentagon has been warning.

Under the furlough plan, some 680,000 of the DOD’s 800,000 civilian employees worldwide will go on mandatory unpaid leave for 11 days per worker through September.

Roughly 120,000 civilian employees, including political appointees, will be exempt from the temporary layoffs.

There are some areas where the impact of civilian furloughs will be felt immediately, “with work not getting done that is absolutely essential,” says Todd Harrison, senior fellow for defense budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank.

This includes a potential backlog of contracting projects and a “gumming up” of the programs to buy weapons systems.

What’s more, “We’re going to see a slowdown in maintenance for sure,” as well as a decided decrease in base services, Mr. Harrison says.

But there will also be areas where furloughs “will not have much of an impact.”

Discovering where civilian employees won’t be missed “will make for an interesting natural experiment for the DOD in terms of finding where there is excess capacity in the workforce,” he adds. “Where are the areas where you can cut down staffing by essentially 20 percent and not see much of an impact?”

The answer, according to Harrison, will probably be found in the halls of the Pentagon itself, which is alternately hailed and reviled as the world’s largest office building.

“I imagine a lot of it will be in the Pentagon, where there are many areas that seem to be overstaffed,” he says. “There are a lot of people who are constantly writing reports and doing analysis, and if that work just doesn’t get done, does anyone care? Does anyone notice? I suspect a fair amount of that work is not essential.”

That raises a conundrum of sorts for the Pentagon, given its dire warnings about the sequester.

To avoid being accused of crying wolf, might defense officials encourage civilian employees to slack off, to demonstrate just how damaging the cuts are?

That’s what some critics accused the White House of doing when it issued guidance that furloughed employees are prohibited from working more than 32 hours per week, even if they normally work 50 rather than 40 hours during a normal workweek.

“The question will be, can they still get the job done in 32 hours?” Harrison says. If the answer is yes, then lawmakers could be tempted to make the cuts permanent or ask for even more – a prospect that is not likely to please turf- and budget-conscious Pentagon officials.

As a result, he warns, “There is pressure building to show that there actually are some consequences to furloughs.”

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