This isn’t the first time the inability of Congress to do its job has threatened the ability of federal employees to do theirs.
But the government shutdown that was averted two years ago and smaller crises differed in critical ways from the sweeping federal budget cuts that could strike Friday. One important difference is the impact the new cuts, known as sequestration, could have on federal employees deemed essential.
This time they won’t be.
Or, to put it more accurately, essential or not, they would be subject to a furlough just like everyone else.
This means that law enforcement officers, including FBI agents, Bureau of Prisons correctional officers, U.S. Marshals Service deputies, Secret Service agents and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officers would be furloughed. Transportation security officers and other essential personnel also will be required to take unpaid leave days if members of Congress cannot agree on a way to avoid the sequester.
That’s a big “if.”
There is little hope that the elected folks on Capitol Hill will act in the responsible, professional way that is required of the federal workforce generally before their extended, self-imposed sequestration deadline expires. With House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) telling the Senate to “get off their ass” to avoid the cuts and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) saying the same thing about the House, albeit more politely with the word “posterior,” the level of discourse indicates just what employees can expect from their leaders.
If Congress does not act, many agencies will begin the furlough process, which includes giving employees a 30-day notice before they are told to stay home.
CBP “will have to furlough all of its employees, reduce overtime, and eliminate hiring to backfill positions, decreasing the number of hours our Border Patrol has to operate between the ports of entry by up to 5,000 Border Patrol agents,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said at the White House on Monday. Homeland Security also says CBP would have to reduce enough work hours to equal more than 2,750 officers.
Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), told the union’s legislative conference Tuesday that CBP plans to begin sending furlough notices to employees in mid-March informing them that they will be subject to 14 days of unpaid leave.
That would amount to 10 percent of their pay through the end of the fiscal year in September.
“The officers and employees are frustrated,” said Ryan Gibson, a CBP officer and president of NTEU CBP Chapter 173 in Detroit.
With the threat of furlough, it’s “hard to feel appreciated,” he said in an interview. “They are continuing to do the job, but they are feeling a great deal more stress doing the job.”
Gibson, wearing a “Stop the Sequester” button, said his wife, a state of Michigan employee, also is facing a 10 percent pay cut. With the state’s poor economy, “a lot of us are underwater” (meaning that their homes are worth less than their mortgages) and are “making tough decisions on retirement or having ramen noodles for dinner.”
“There’s a lot of things we can’t plan for,” he said.
With three kids, NTEU members Dave and Colleen Matoon have a lot to plan for. But a federal furlough would deliver a double whammy to the couple because they are married CBP officers in Sweetgrass, Mont., a tiny place on the Canadian border.
“Families like ours are doubly disadvantaged because we are both federal workers,” said Dave, who has been an officer for more than 20 years. “We have three children — a daughter finishing college this spring and 15-year-old and 12-year-old sons — and we are trying to save for their college educations. Furloughs will make that even more challenging.”
Added his wife Colleen: “But it’s not just about us. It is about the mission of the agency that we have dedicated our careers to.
“Reducing the law enforcement personnel at the border will weaken our ability to safeguard our country against terrorists and criminals, keep illegal guns, drugs, currency and contraband from our communities, ensure the safety of our nation’s agriculture, inspect cargo, process travelers in an efficient and effective manner and facilitate legitimate trade.”
The current situation is so critical, she said, that they felt it was important “to take this time to come all the way to Washington to meet with our members of Congress and on behalf of all of our colleagues back in Montana.”
From Sweetgrass to Washington.
I hope it’s not a wasted trip.
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.