With furloughs looming, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter this week paid tribute to the job done by the Pentagon's civilian work force while warning that there soon would be fewer of them doing it.
In a series of appearances that fell during Public Service Recognition Week, Carter said the department had yet to come to a decision on how many furlough days to impose to meet the budget-cutting demands of the Congressional sequester process in the current fiscal year.
Carter called the across-the-board sequester cuts "stupid," and said they would result in the loss of five to six percent of DOD's civilian personnel if continued through future fiscal years.
"What is tragic in all this, this damage to readiness and national security, is that it is not a result of economic emergency or recession in this country -- it's purely a collateral damage of political gridlock," Carter said at the National Press Club.
Carter gave no guidance on the more immediate issue of furloughs. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has yet to reach a decision, Carter said, "but if we have to impose them, it will harm morale and productivity throughout most of our support functions, and this will in turn further hurt readiness."
In February, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned that nearly 800,000 civilian DOD workers would have to be furloughed for up to 22 days under the nearly $40 billion in cuts from sequester.
Hagel reduced the furlough days to 14 after Congress passed a spending bill that eased the financial pressure by allowing DOD limited authority to shift funding between accounts.
Hagel has suggested that the furlough days might be cut further to seven, and the Navy has argued that furloughs could be avoided altogether for its own civilian employes.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army's chief of staff, said civilian personnel in the Army were bracing for 14 furlough days. "
Right now, we're going to furlough," Odierno said at a breakfast with defense reporters on Tuesday "That's how we're going to pay the bills in 2013."
"We have briefed the secretary on why we need it," Odierno said of the 14 furlough days. "As of now, if we don't furlough, we've got to cancel programs, we've got to cancel training."
Despite the Navy's pushback against furloughs, "all civilian DOD employees, from all services, are subject to being furloughed. No final decisions regarding exemptions have been made," said Navy Cmdr. Leslie Hull-Ryde, a DOD spokeswoman on personnel matters.
In the Pentagon's courtyard on Wednesday, Carter was put in the awkward position of handing out 34 "Spirit of Service" awards to workers he might have to furlough in a ceremony that was part of Public Service Regcognition week.
Through "your drive, your innovation, you set the bar for us," Carter told the workers. Knowing that "we are part of something that is bigger than ourselves -- that is the reward we get," Carter said.
Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service which sponsors the recognition week, noted the irony in hailing the civil service work force ‘at the same time that our political leadership is mismanaging that work force"' through the sequester process.
Stier said the civilian workers at DOD were taking a double hit – from the threat of furloughs and the uncertainty surrounding how they will be administered. "The uncertainty itself is damaging, it's causing damage to the morale of the workers," Stier said.