As Pentagon Furloughs Start, Congress Yawns

One of the most consequential effects of the sequester began today: Weekly unpaid furlough days for more than 650,000 civilian workers at the Defense Department, who will effectively see their pay cut by 20 percent for the final 11 weeks of this budget year.

All the commissaries at domestic military installations are closed, for example, and will be every Monday through the end of September. (Most agencies within the department have decided to salve the economic sting a tiny bit by setting the furloughs on Mondays and Fridays, so that workers might at least enjoy a series of long weekends.)

But the visuals of closed cafeterias, equipment maintenance sheds, supply warehouses, payroll offices and the like will have absolutely no effect on the pace of congressional effort toward untangling the budget morass.

Whatever work is taking place on that score is totally out of view. And none of the congressional leadership is suggesting this will change before Congress returns from its August recess a full week after Labor Day, when there will be 23 days left before this fiscal year gives way to the next.

Some agreement on spending will need to get done by then to forestall a partial government shutdown, which is in neither party’s political interest to permit. Odds are that the first month or so, at a minimum, will be covered by a temporary patch in the form of a continuing resolution that keeps agencies spending at their across-the-board budget cut levels.

But any longer-term agreement already seems destined to be delayed until the end of the year, by which time the debt ceiling will also be nearing.

The Pentagon in coming days will start explaining how it’s preparing for the probability that its budget will be significantly clipped in the coming decade, even if the amount isn’t as much as the sequester demands. Although no hearing has been scheduled, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is expected to reveal some of those plans to the Senate Armed Services Committee this week.

About $2 billion is being cut from the budget by this summer’s furloughs, which effect about three quarters of all civilian DOD workers worldwide. That level of personnel savings is not close to sufficient if the sequester cuts last through fiscal 2015; the budget then would require layoffs of as many as 100,000 — and those people would almost certainly have to come from a mix of civilian, active-duty military, National Guard and Reserve soldiers.

The budget for defense would be limited to $475 billion unless the sequester caps are lifted. The Obama administration would like to spend $527 billion, or 11 percent more than that. Republicans want to spend $552 billion, or 16 percent above the cap.

This was the topic of my most recent discussion on WAMU, the NPR station in Washington. You can listen to it here or read a summary.

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