Administration says furloughs are possible, but not immediately


The White House is illuminated at night in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, April 6, 2011. (Brendan Hoffman/Bloomberg)
Joe Davidson
Columnist December 20, 2012

They don’t want it to happen.

They don’t necessarily think it is going to happen.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

But Obama administration officials want federal employees to be ready if it does happen.

“It” is sequestration, the process of across-the-board budget cuts that are scheduled to begin taking effect in January unless the White House and Congress come to an agreement to prevent “it.”

To get folks ready, federal agencies sent messages to their employees Thursday to explain what sequestration is and is not and how it would, and would not, affect operations, albeit in general terms.

“Under sequestration, we would still have funds available after January 2, but our overall funding for the remainder of the year would be reduced,” said a message from “Charlie B,” also known as NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr.

Nearly identical language, supplied by the Office of Management and Budget, was in messages sent by agencies.

Explaining that sequestration — which was put into place by the Budget Control Act of 2011 — is different from a government shutdown in which agency appropriations have lapsed, the message from Bolden and others added: “For these reasons, I do not expect our day-to-day operations to change dramatically on or immediately after January 2, should sequestration occur. This means that we will not be executing any immediate personnel actions, such as furloughs, on that date. Should we have to operate under reduced funding levels for an extended period of time, we may have to consider furloughs or other actions in the future.”

William R. Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, who was among the labor leaders on a 6 p.m. Wednesday conference call with Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry and Danny Werfel, controller of the Office of Management and Budget, said the notice to employees would help prevent them from being alarmed during this period of great uncertainty in government.

“Let me assure you,” the messages to employees said, “that we will carefully examine other options to reduce costs within the agency before taking such [personnel] action, taking into consideration our obligation to execute our core mission.”

Layoffs, or reductions in force, were not mentioned in the messages or predicted by administration officials during the call, but the possibility of “other actions in the future” clearly makes labor leaders wary.

“Sequestration would very likely lead to furloughs and RIFs,” said J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, “so will the spending caps which are also part of the Budget Control Act — the law whose terrible provisions will undermine federal employees and agencies for an entire decade.”

Despite that prediction, Rep. James Moran (D-Va.), whose northern Virginia district is home to about 165,000 current and former federal employees, said he worries they still don’t understand the real possibility of furloughs and layoffs.

“They really are taking this with kind of as casual an attitude as Wall Street is taking it,” he said. “But by the time we get to next week, between Christmas and New Year’s, all of a sudden they’re going to realize how serious this is. This OMB notice may alert them that this is real. I don’t think most of them accept that this is real yet, even though they’ve been reading about it. They think Congress has been doing its normal thing. I’m very much worried, it’s going to be chaos if we go over the cliff, and I think there’s at least a 50-50 chance that we’ll go over.”

Cox said he’s “glad the administration seems to be taking a ‘hope for the best, but prepare for the worst’ approach, because as awful as sequestration would be, some of the items in these ‘grand deals’ are outrageously bad for federal employees. We’re doing our own preparation to make sure that if sequestration does occur, agencies spread the pain to their larger and more costly contractor workforce and don’t put it all on us.”

The International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers, which reported on the conference call in a “sequestration update” e-mail to its members Thursday morning, said this:

“First and foremost, it is becoming more and more likely that there will be a deal that includes significant revenue increases so that there will be less of a need for cuts. Even if it doesn’t happen by December 31st, it will likely happen by early January at the absolute latest.

“Second, regardless of the final deal, there will be large cuts to most federal agencies so there will be pain although much less than if the Budget Control Act (sequestration) were allowed to kick in.

“Third, sequestration or any deal to avoid it is not a shutdown. All federal agencies will be open on January 2nd, and all federal employees should report to work as scheduled. Any cuts will be gradually implemented and so there should not be any real disruptions in January (i.e., no furloughs).”

That’s about as optimistic an outlook of the current situation as you’ll find. But even it clearly indicates there will be pain.

The question is how much pain, how soon.

Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report. Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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