Shutdown preparations leave Defense Department scrambling

September 27, 2013

The Defense Department specializes in mobilizing for massive operations on short notice. But officials at the Pentagon are finding this week that preparing to shut down much of the government’s largest bureaucracy by midnight Monday is proving messier than many challenges.

At its Arlington headquarters and on military bases around the world, supervisors have been cloistering one-on-one with 3 million active-duty military, civilians and reservists to tell them whether to report to work Tuesday morning. The payroll staff has scrambled to figure out how Pentagon computers would cut paychecks if much of the staff was told to stay home. On Friday, assorted deputies, assistants and analysts were scurrying in and out of the offices of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and his comptroller, Robert Hale, for last-
minute briefings and conference calls with veterans and commanders around the world.

“The planning itself is disruptive,” an exhausted Hale told reporters. “People are worrying right now about whether their paychecks are going to be delayed, rather than focusing fully on their mission.”

Shutdown planning has eaten up “probably thousands of hours in employee time better spent on supporting national security,” Hale said.

The tempo was similar at just about every federal agency this week, with managers racing from planning meetings to town hall gatherings with their employees.

Hundreds of thousands of employees who got word Friday that their jobs would not be essential prepared to turn in their government-issued BlackBerrys and
iPhones on Tuesday morning, while colleagues who must still report to the office wondered how their agencies would carry out their missions.

In the Defense Department, about 400,000 civilians will have to stay home if Congress does not pass a bill to keep the government open, Hale said.

Preparing for even a partial closure is a unique challenge for the Defense Department, which has a global reach that includes about 200 schools, 250 commissaries, and 700 hospitals and clinics. The department’s mission is singular within the federal government. The Pentagon must continue to support its combat operations in Afghanistan and deployments in many corners of the world.

In his Office of Public Affairs on Friday, Army Col. Steve Warren was coming to grips with the reality facing his staff.

“I’ve got no essentials in here, and I’m concerned,” Warren said, as CNN reported on his flat-screen television about the latest developments on Capitol Hill.

Half the press staff is active-
duty military and the other half civilians, a common mix throughout the agency. The uniformed officers must come to work in a shutdown.

Warren was worrying about manning hundreds of Pentagon Web sites and Twitter and Facebook, which get information to the public. “Guess who runs most of them?” he said. “Civilians who are not essential.”

Some Defense Web sites are run by contractors who will probably be working, since their funding has been approved. But if the federal workers supervising them are furloughed, the contractors may not be able to work.

“There’s no simple answer to any of this,” Warren said. Amid the confusion, he was preparing to train his uniformed staff to manage Web sites they knew little about.

Kenneth Amster, a manager at the Naval Air Systems Command in China Lake, Calif., was awaiting word Friday from his commanding officer — who was awaiting word from the Pentagon — about the status of his 12-
person staff.

“I have one or two brand-new employees who’ve been asking if they need to be concerned,” Amster said. “I told them, ‘Come to work Tuesday, because I can’t give you any answers. I don’t want people to stop doing their jobs just because people in Washington are frankly not doing their jobs. ”

He learned late Thursday that since his department is funded by a multi-year budget, it would not be affected by a shutdown.

Back at the Pentagon, Bryan Whitman, a senior manager in the public affairs operation, was preparing for his third shutdown planning meeting of the day.

“We’re an organization that can walk and chew gum at the same time,” he said, “But this is clearly having an impact on leadership’s time.”

He said he worries about morale. More than 650,000 Defense civilians were forced this year to take six days of unpaid furloughs because of budget cuts. The staff is in the third year of a pay freeze. “The effect of all of this is huge,” Whitman said.

In getting ready for a government shutdown, managers have been able to rely partly on their shutdown plans from 2011, when Congress was embroiled in another budget fight that took the government to the brink of closing. But it hasn’t been easy. Half of the department’s senior leaders are new to their jobs since then.

There are also different operations to consider today. Several ships, for instance, have deployed to the Mediterranean Sea in case of a possible U.S. military strike against Syria.

In the press briefing room, Hale stood at the lectern beside an American flag and tried to convey the oddities of a government shutdown. He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. So many questions could not be answered, even four days before a possible closure. Would contractors get paid? Most, but not all. When would employees get paid? That depends on how long a shutdown lasts.

Could President Obama launch a strike against Syria, theoretically, from the ships deployed in the Mediterranean?

“If we were, hypothetically, the president were to authorize some action against Syria,” Hale said, “it would be a military operation approved by the secretary, and so it would be an excepted activity and, yes, we could go forward with it.”

Lisa Rein covers the federal workforce and issues that concern the management of government.
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