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Is debt panel a super failure? It was always lose-lose for federal workforce.


The “supercommittee” presented the federal workforce with a lose-lose situation.

Had members of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction agreed on ways to slash the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years, any deal could have resulted in across-the-board cuts to federal employees — things such as a hit to retirement benefits or an extended pay freeze.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about federal government and workplace issues that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns. View Archive

Those government-wide remedies are less likely to happen now that the supercommittee, an outgrowth of Congress’s failure to deal with the deficit, pronounced itself a failure Monday.

Instead, automatic cuts worth the same amount are scheduled to be played out on an agency-by-agency basis. Those cuts, half of which would fall on national security, would not take effect until 2013. But even before then, look for more buyouts and layoffs that vary by agency and an impaired ability for federal workers to serve the American people.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned Congress that some Pentagon civilians would be furloughed, “perhaps a month or more.” Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob Lew predicted that “large numbers” of Defense Department civilians would be furloughed and that “training would have to be curtailed.”

Although it’s too early to tell what each agency will do, Rep. Norm Dicks (Wash.), the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, outlined a troubling series of possibilities in a letter last month to the joint committee.

The letter didn’t get much attention then, but its litany of potential blows to workers and customer service now takes on greater relevance.

Although Dicks’s projections are only estimates, they are a scary indication of what the future could hold from a man in a position to have informed speculation. According to Dicks’ letter:

●The Border Patrol would be reduced by 5,350 agents “to levels not seen since 2007 before violence and drug-trafficking deaths reached epic proportions in Mexico and we had fears of spillover violence.”

●About 1,600 fewer Customs officers “would significantly increase wait times at our Nation’s already congested land ports of entry.”

●The Transportation Security Administration “would need to eliminate 9,000 screener positions. This would cause massive delays at the nation’s checkpoints.”

●Immigration and Customs Enforcement would lose 550 criminal investigators.

●“The Department of Justice would have to eliminate approximately 11,000 onboard positions, or 10 percent of its total personnel, including 3,700 FBI, DEA, ATF agents and US Marshals, along with 975 attorneys. This would severely impact investigations and prosecutions related to terrorism, drug gangs, gun-running, and violent crime. This loss of personnel would come on top of nearly 6,000 positions that have become vacant during the last year due to a hiring freeze required by funding cuts in FY 2011. In addition, DOJ would be forced to furlough all of its remaining personnel for an average of 25 days, equivalent to the loss of another 5,300 positions.”

●Potentially, the Bureau of Prisons would cut 6,891 correctional officer slots “and would be forced to furlough its remaining staff for 30 days.”

●The judiciary would lose 7,800 court staff members. “As a result, the federal courts would be unable to supervise properly thousands of persons under pretrial release and convicted felons released from federal prisons, compromising public safety in communities.”

●The Federal Aviation Administration would “lay off more than 2,000 employees, including more than 1,200 air traffic controllers, 525 technicians and 400 support staff. FAA would be forced to close 246 air traffic control contract towers. FAA would not replace more than 600 safety and aircraft certification inspectors that would be lost through attrition. Reduction in aircraft certification staff would delay the approval of new aviation products and the jobs these new products would create. FAA would need to furlough every single operations-funded employee for 3 days.”

●●Elimination of up to 10 percent of the National Weather Service’s staff “would significantly reduce the accuracy of weather forecasts all across the country.”

Remember, the Dicks letter is just a projection. Congress can still determine funding levels, and agency officials will make decisions on how to allocate their budgets. Yet, the letter is an indication of just how tough this situation could become.

The supercommittee’s failure is another disgusting display of congressional dysfunction, fueled primarily by intransigent, obstructionist Republicans. By contrast, the working stiffs, federal civil servants, provide strong backbone to a government that will continue to function.

Too bad they don’t have elected leadership of the same caliber.

LIVE CHAT with Joe Davidson about the supercommittee’s impact on federal workers

Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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