A rush to soften impact of sequester

And lawmakers continued to press the Defense Department, the government’s largest civilian employer, to further reduce or eliminate planned furloughs and other cutbacks for most of its workforce.

“It is increasingly clear that these actions are threatening to undermine mission performance and, as a result, mission readiness,” a bipartisan group of 126 House members wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

Although many observers see little chance of fully rolling back the sequester, the controversy is not going away, said Peter Winch, deputy director of field services and education for the American Federation of Government Employees, the union that represents many federal workers.

“This sort of punitive across-the-board approach just seems illogical, and both the administration and Congress seem to be backing away from that,” Winch said.

The sequester’s $85 billion in spending cuts, which began taking effect in March, were triggered by the 2011 Budget Control Act after lawmakers and the White House deadlocked on a path to reduce future deficits by $1.2 trillion by 2021. The Pentagon is taking about an 8 percent cut; most other agencies, 5 percent.
Furloughs begin

Furloughs for some 4,000 Labor Department employees began April 15. The FAA, Office of Management and Budget, Environmental Protection Agency and National Park Service followed suit last week, said Jessica Klement, legislative director for the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association.

On Capitol Hill, the sharpest partisan sparring involved the FAA, where thousands of air traffic controllers and other employees are forced to take one furlough day per pay period. As flight delays quickly mounted, top Republican lawmakers accused the Obama administration of political posturing.

“You didn’t forewarn us that this was coming,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., told FAA Administrator Michael Huerta at a hearing. “You didn’t ask advice about how we should handle it.” Another top Republican, Rep. Tom Latham of Iowa, questioned why the FAA’s parent agency, the Transportation Department, is still doling out almost a half-billion dollars in grants aimed at fostering “livable and sustainable” communities.

“Do you have any ability to transfer any of this money?” Latham asked.

Huerta replied that salaries and benefits account for about 70 percent of his agency’s operations budget and the law requires him to cut every account to achieve $637 million in cuts. “The hardest thing that we have to do is reduce these hours,” he said. “But in order to hit the target we need to hit, we don’t really have any choice.”

The furloughs have sparked a legal challenge by two airline trade groups and the airline pilots union. It is unlikely that a court will take action on the matter until before late May. FAA employees, who are taking a 10 percent pay cut as long as the furloughs last, are “pawns,” Tom Rizzardo, an air traffic controller at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, said in a phone interview.

“We are probably being used by both sides in a kind of political firestorm,” said Rizzardo, also the facility representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. “The short-term goal for us is to get back to work, period.”

Under the bipartisan bill introduced by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, that quickly passed the Senate and House late last week, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood could transfer up to $253 million from an airport grant program to “ensure a safe and efficient air traffic control system.” Only about 15,000 of FAA’s 47,000 employees are air traffic controllers, and it is unclear whether other agency employees will be exempted from furloughs. It will be up to LaHood to decide that, but the issue has already “created a lot of tension,” Louis Dupart, executive director of the FAA Managers Association, said in an interview.

At press time, the measure was expected to be signed by President Obama.

To Klement, it came as no surprise that lawmakers, many of whom fly home every week Congress is in session, are taking a special interest in FAA. But employees at other federal agencies do equally important work, she said, and nonetheless still face furloughs.

“What about the rest of them?”
Other furlough plans

At least two other agencies scaled back their furloughs last week. One of those is the Justice Department, which for months has been warning prosecutors, FBI agents and others in its 100,000-strong workforce that they faced up to 14 days of unpaid time off. Last month, however, the department resorted to an emergency funding transfer to head off furloughs at federal prisons.

In last week’s memo, Attorney General Eric Holder said extra money in a recently passed spending bill — coupled with a hiring freeze, contracting cuts and other reductions — means that no furloughs for any Justice Department staff will be needed in fiscal 2013. Holder noted, however, that the 2014 landscape is still unsettled. If sequester funding levels continue past September, he said, “furloughs are a distinct possibility.”

EPA, has adopted a two-stage strategy. Starting April 21, employees began scheduling four furlough days through mid-June. After that, the agency will decide whether more furloughs are needed, but the maximum has been cut from 13 to about 10, according to a memo last week from acting Administrator Bob Perciasepe.

The Internal Revenue Service confirmed it will need to shut down for at least five days between May and August, with an additional two days “possible in August and September,” acting Commissioner Steve Miller told staff. On those dates, “all public-facing operations” will close, including toll-free help lines and taxpayer assistance centers, he said.

And National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration employees face up to four furlough days, according to an official notice.
Courts ask for more money

For the federal courts, which are losing almost $350 million to the sequester, the impact is particularly harsh because they “have no control over their workload,” Chief Judge William Traxler said in a statement signaling plans to seek more than $51 million in extra 2013 appropriations to replace money for defender services, security and other areas. Courts “must respond to all cases that are filed, whether they are by individuals, businesses or the government,” he said.

Traxler chairs the executive committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States, the judiciary’s main policymaking body. This month, the panel approved a spending plan for the defender services program that will require employee furloughs of up to 15 days, Traxler said, and defer payments to private attorneys for the last 15 business days of the fiscal year in September. Among the defender offices in the firing line is Boston’s, which is representing Tsarnaev in the Boston marathon bombing case, according to court filings.

The judiciary’s plan also means millions of dollars in expenses will be shifted to fiscal 2014, even though those costs weren’t part of the courts’ budget request. “This level of funding is unsustainable without relief from Congress,” Traxler said.
DoD furloughs undecided

The biggest question mark hovers over DoD’s almost 800,000 permanent civilian workers, who face up to 14 furlough days by the end of September. That is down from the 22 originally forecast; Hagel made the change after the latest spending bill gave the Pentagon more flexibility to shift money among accounts.

Last week, 126 House members urged him to go further and let the individual military services and other DoD operations avoid furloughs if they can.

The lawmakers said they are aware that Hagel’s office is reviewing individual installations’ requests for relief, but “to date we have been told only that all civilian furloughs are being applied in the same manner across the department, regardless of whether a service component or defense agency has the resources to buy back the furlough days.”

The letter was released by AFGE, which said in a news release that its members were instrumental in rounding up signatures of support. While the bulk of the signers were Democrats, they also included Republicans such as Rep. Blake Farenthold, whose South Texas district encompasses Corpus Christi Army Depot.

DoD is seeking to close a $41 billion budget gap for fiscal 2013 stemming from the sequester. Besides the planned furloughs, it is already using hiring freezes and layoffs of temporary workers to cut payroll costs.

A DoD spokeswoman had no comment on the letter. At a recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Hagel said officials were “probably a couple of weeks away” from making a final decision on the number of furlough days needed.

Winch, of AFGE, expected a decision by early next week.

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