Rep. Jeb Hensarling ( R-Tex.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) lead the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, better known as the supercommittee. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

As with almost everything in Washington, it depends.

Seven of the 12 supercommittee members appeared on Sunday political talk shows to explain their lack of progress in agreeing to at least $1.2 trillion in cuts, and the frequent use of the past tense suggested that failure is imminent.

During the months-long debt debate, lawmakers have targeted the federal workforce and military service members when discussing ways to pay down the federal debt. They could recalculate federal worker retirement contributions, overhaul the military health-care system, extend a two-year civilian worker pay freeze, or use layoffs, buyouts and attrition to save money.

For example, a popular deficit-cutting recommendation on both sides of the aisle would overhaul federal retirement payments by calculating a worker’s five highest years of compensation instead of his or her top three years — a formula that would surely drag down most sums.

But if that recommendation isn’t made, what will happen?

Nobody knows for certain, but dozens of agencies are cutting back in anticipation of deeper budget reductions. Agency officials have abandoned construction projects, announced plans to close regional offices, and offered buyouts to older, eligible workers. In the coming months, without quick congressional action, agencies could be forced to use layoffs to save money, with cutbacks varying by agency.

But when would all of this occur? That’s also unknown. Current law would force trillions of dollars in cuts to begin in Jan. 2013 and agencies could begin the reductions sooner. Over the summer, many eligible federal workers told us that they would be ready to retire at a moment’s notice if the “high five” formula was used to calculate retirements.

Watch out for that stampede if such calculations are used. That alone could produce the workforce reductions some lawmakers want. But it also could accelerate the long-feared “brain drain,” or “retirement tsunami” that many federal observers say will eventually sap the government of some of its most valuable people.

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

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