The Washington Post

As sequester nears, Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale at center of storm

Pentagon comptroller Robert F. Hale is overseeing the Defense Department’s plans to furlough most of its 800,000 civilian workers, but he insists that he still meets with friendly faces as he strides down the building’s corridors.

“I teasingly say, ‘When I walk down the hall, people still wave, but with fewer fingers,’ ” said Hale, who is balancing the tension and frustration of the times with a bit of wit.

As the Defense Department’s chief financial officer and principal adviser on all fiscal matters, including the Pentagon’s annual budget of more than $600 billion, the 66-year-old Hale and his office are at the focal point of a crisis.

“I think all of us realized a couple of months ago we were heading for the perfect storm, and we’re in the middle of it at the moment,” he said during an interview Wednesday, a particularly tumultuous day.

“This is furlough day,” Hale noted.

Pentagon comptroller Robert F. Hale, center, and his team are at the focal point of the budget turmoil. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta was giving Congress a formal 45-day notice required by law, as well as sending a message to the Defense Department workforce worldwide: In the event of sequestration, the Pentagon will move forward with furloughs.

Preparing for the furloughs, Hale said, is “frankly one of the most distasteful tasks I have faced in four years” as comptroller.

A square-jawed and amiable former Navy officer, Hale served as Air Force comptroller during the Clinton administration and before that for 12 years as head of the national security division at the Congressional Budget Office. But he considers the present situation “unparalleled” in his experience.

Hale had readied for the day’s tasks while riding in a Defense Department car from his home in Annandale to the Pentagon, dressed in a comptroller’s uniform: a dark business suit, white shirt and checked tie.

Arriving in his E-Ring office overlooking the Pentagon’s Mall entrance by 7 a.m., Hale prepared e-mails to the department’s senior leaders alerting them to Panetta’s pending actions. While Panetta’s message was being delivered in a letter to Capitol Hill and via e-mail to the workforce, Hale conferred with Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter in preparation for a Friday conference to coordinate sequestration with the senior Pentagon leadership.

“Not to say they aren’t frustrated, but they don’t blame it on me,” he said, conscious of the toll the turmoil is taking on officials and rank and file alike.

At 11 a.m. he was participating in a teleconference with worried defense agency heads from around the country. “They’ve got thousands of people affected by this,” Hale said.

At 1 p.m. he went before the Pentagon press corps to brief reporters about the budget developments, warning grimly that the cuts could leave the military unprepared to respond to contingencies but also joking that solving the sequestration issue would allow him to “spend more time with my wife.”

Hale rejected criticism voiced during Capitol Hill hearings last week that the Pentagon should have started making budget plans for sequestration much earlier.

“If we’d done this six months ago, we would have caused the degradation in productivity and morale that we’re seeing now among our civilians,” he said.

Hale does not have to travel far within the Pentagon to find disquiet about the situation. Many of the 160 employees of the comptroller’s office face furlough.

“They’re frustrated, angry, worried,” he said. “My own staff, several people are saying, ‘I’m just going to retire. I don’t want to do this anymore,’ and I can’t blame them. I mean, we’re talking about 20 percent pay cuts for five to six months. Some of these people aren’t going to be able to pay their rent.”

The irony of furloughing the budget staff in the midst of a budget crisis does not escape Hale. “It sure won’t help,” he said.

“You’re replanning your budget for one of the world’s largest organizations, something that we would normally do over six months, in a couple of weeks, so it’s a very compressed period,” he said.

Yet the comptroller said he is willing to stay on for a time if asked to remain when a replacement for Panetta is confirmed by the Senate.

“I’d like to help the department get through whatever’s coming in the next few months and then plot a course from there,” he said.

“It’s satisfying in the sense of helping a major organization and a very important one get through tough times,” Hale added.

Perspective makes a difference, too.

“Nobody’s shooting at me, as is happening to some of our folks in Afghanistan,” Hale said. “So I don’t believe by any means I have the toughest job in the Department of Defense, or even close.”

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