More than 70 members of Congress from both parties have written to the department requesting explanations for the program’s shortfall, which sources familiar with the budgeting process have pegged at $61.5 million. Two lawmakers have also complained to the White House.
The freeze comes as President Obama began to promote his plans for job creation, job training and middle-class growth by taking his State of the Union address on the road last week.
“The timing of this freeze could not be worse,” Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) said Tuesday. “Though our economy is adding jobs, the number of unemployed remains high. If you add to that the fact that many of the unemployed do not possess the basic skills to fill even the few jobs that are available, what you have is a country standing at a crossroads.”
Job Corps, which opened its first center in 1965, was a vanguard of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty. The free program gives young adults a chance to earn a high school diploma, receive vocational training or earn certifications in more than 100 specializations.
Democratic lawmakers following the program’s budget issues say they are frustrated by the lack of a response from the Labor Department, which also halted enrollment briefly last summer and in December. Before 2011, the program had never halted enrollment.
“We need to know why it’s happened and why they didn’t consider other alternatives,” said Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.). “Maybe it has nothing to do with the program. Maybe it’s a management failure.”
Casey, the newly appointed chairman of a Senate subcommittee that oversees Job Corps, said he plans to schedule a hearing “within weeks” to determine the cause of the shortfall, and he has requested an audit of the budget, which Labor’s inspector general’s office expects to complete by May.
Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), whose district includes one of the largest Job Corps centers in the country, said he sees “evidence of mismanagement of money.” He and Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah) wrote to the White House on Feb. 6 complaining that the Labor Department had declined a House subcommittee’s request to justify the cost overruns.
“We are deeply troubled by the Department of Labor’s disregard of our concerns over what we see as their gross mismanagement of the Job Corps program,” the letter said.
Labor Department officials said they paused enrollment after other cost-cutting efforts fell short. They expect the freeze, which started in January, to last until June 30.
“The decision to suspend enrollment was not made lightly,” said spokesman Carl A. Fillichio, who emphasized that those already enrolled in Job Corps will be able to complete their training.