By Stephen Barr
Wednesday, December 5, 2007
Federal employees who work for the Army may get layoff notices before Christmas if Congress and the White House do not reach an accord on funding for the Iraq war, the Pentagon said yesterday.
The warning, posted near the top of the Defense Department's Web site, was the latest in a series from Pentagon officials in recent weeks.
About 100,000 federal employees and an additional 100,000 contract workers are at risk of being sent home without pay in February and March if the Army and Marine Corps run short of money and have to reduce operations at their bases, according to the Pentagon.
Under federal rules, the department must give 60 days' advance notice of layoffs to employees -- which, in this case, would make for a less-than-glad tiding for the holidays.
Longtime federal employees usually scoff at such warnings, viewing them as part of the political posturing that pops up from time to time. Still, such warnings cannot be entirely dismissed. The 1995-96 budget impasse led to a shutdown of the government and, at one point, sent 800,000 federal employees home for three weeks during the December-January holiday season.
Yesterday, Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman said "facts are the facts" and that military bases will have to cease operations, terminate contracts and send employees home without pay if a war-funding deal is not reached.
"Anyone who thinks that this is not a serious situation is simply misinformed or is ignoring the facts," he said in an interview with the American Forces Press Service.
Whitman's warning came a day after Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) released a letter, signed by seven other Washington area House members, calling on the Pentagon to shift money around in the department's many budget accounts to stave off furloughs.
"This is an old budget showdown tactic -- and they're using federal employees' livelihoods as leverage in a turf battle with Congress," Moran said.
Asked for his views on the furloughs, John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents thousands of Defense workers, yesterday said Secretary Robert M. Gates should "reconsider plans to lay off civilian employees in the midst of this political debate. The Defense Department should have alternatives for funding the war without laying off civilian employees -- one alternative is to request authority from Congress to reprogram operation funds."
Federal employees, Gage said, are vital to the Iraq and Afghanistan war efforts, and many Defense civilian employees are military veterans who have volunteered for jobs in the combat zones. "They are the ones who care for wounded war fighters in DoD hospitals, and they are the ones who tend to the families of troops waiting at home for their loved ones," he said.
Defense officials said last month that they have limited authority to reprogram money for the combat zones. Yesterday, Whitman said the Pentagon is using the fiscal 2008 budget to finance operations in Iraq and Afghanistan because $178 billion in emergency war funding has not been approved by Congress. The regular budget money usually pays for training, supplies and maintenance of equipment and weapons.
Last month, Gates requested permission to shift $3.7 billion from the Navy and Air Force and $800 million from a working capital fund to Army and Marine Corps operations.
But Moran's letter said that request "does not account for additional budgetary tools" that officials can use to push "the need for furloughs farther into the next calendar year, by which time supplemental funds may be enacted."
In addition to Moran, the letter was signed by Virginia Republican Reps. Thomas M. Davis III and Frank R. Wolf, Maryland Democratic Reps. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, John P. Sarbanes, Elijah E. Cummings and Chris Van Hollen, and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).
Sending layoff notices before the holidays could undermine morale and cause some Defense employees to file early for retirement, the letter suggested.
"Experienced employees are not likely to return after their furlough," the letter said. "Any loss of experienced employees threatens the effectiveness of the Department of Defense, which already faces shortfalls within some of its most vital workforce needs."