An apologetic Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced Tuesday that about 680,000 of the nearly 800,000 civilian personnel in the Defense Department will be subject to 11 days of furlough before the end of the current fiscal year on Sept. 30.
"I'm sorry I have to come to you today with this," Hagel told a grim-faced audience of DOD workers who will have to get by with 20 percent cuts to their paychecks for 11 weeks.
"I did everything, I tried everything I could" to avoid imposing furloughs, Hagel said at a town hall meeting at the Mark Center in Northern Virginia near the Pentagon.
"That's where we are. I'm sorry about that." Defense Department officials projected the savings from 11 days of furlough at $1.8 billion.
Hagel said there was a slight possibility that the 11 furlough days could be reduced if the Department's fiscal projections improved over the summer, but he warned that the prospects were slim.
"I can't promise that. I'm not going to be cute with you at all. This is where we are," Hagel said.
Senior Defense Department officials said that notice letters on the furloughs would start going out on May 28 and the furloughs would begin on July 8 for one day a week and continue for 11 weeks.
Those workers receiving the letters would have seven days to reply to request an exemption but the officials said few requests were likely to be granted. Financial hardship "is not a reason for exempting from furlough," a senior Defense official said on background at a Pentagon briefing.
The officials said that about 120,000 workers, including 50,000 foreign nationals employed by DOD and about 30,000 Navy shipyard workers, would be exempt from the furloughs. Hagel rejected the Navy's argument for avoiding furloughs entirely for its civilian workforce, but "we're excluding their shipyard workers," a senior Defense official said.
The furloughs will also result in the closing of base commissaries for one day a week, the officials said. Teachers at Defense Department schools will be furloughed for five days rather than 11, and the five days will begin at the start of the next school year in September to allow summer school to continue, the officials said.
Hagel and the senior officials blamed the political impasse in Congress that resulted in the budget cutting process known as sequestration for forcing the furloughs.
Hagel said sequestration had left a $30 billion shortfall in the Department's operations and maintenance accounts.
"We're going to have to deal with that. We don't have any choice," Hagel said. One senior Defense official added that "this is one of the most distasteful tasks I've had in more than 30 years in government service."
Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., said responsibility for the sequester and the furloughs rested with the Obama administration.
"For two years now, members of the Armed Services Committee have warned that sequestration would wound our national security and our economy," McKeon said in a statement.
"In the time since the White House first conceived of sequester, I have urged the President to find a reasonable way to rein in the debt without hurting the economy or compromising our national security," McKeon said.
Others argued that Congress, DoD and the White House shared in the blame for the funding impasse and the furloughs.
"No doubt about it, people are going to get hurt," by the furloughs that were the result of gridlock in Congress and poor planning by the Defense Department, said Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of Defense for personnel. "Everybody was playing a political game," he said.
The White House and Congress were unable to agree on a funding deal to avoid sequester, which neither side thought would happen, Korb said. The Pentagon then exacerbated the problem by refusing to plan for the possibility that sequester would add $500 billion in defense funding cuts over 10 years on top of $487 billion in cuts that were already underway, he said.
The blame for the furloughs should go to "the people who came up with this thing," Korb said of the sequester, and "the people who pretended it wasn't going to happen" at the Pentagon.
Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta initially planned for 22 days of furloughs, but Hagel later said that the number of furlough days could be reduced to 14 under a stopgap funding measure passed by Congress in March after the cost-cutting process called sequester went into effect.
At the town hall meeting, Hagel said he looked at every possibility to reduce the furlough days further, but had to settle on 11 under the fiscal restraints imposed on the Department.
The last time the Defense Department issued furloughs was during the administration of former President Bill Clinton.
A funding impasse with Congress forced a government shutdown from Nov. 13-19, 1995, and required the Pentagon to furlough civilian personnel because of a lapse in appropriations, Defense Department officials said. During that time, non-essential government workers were furloughed, and non-essential services were suspended.
At the background briefing, one senior Defense official tried to explain why furloughs had to be imposed against personnel rather than by taking the money from weapons systems to achieve a relatively small amount of savings of $1.8 billion in a defense budget that routinely runs well above $600 billion.
The official agreed that the savings could easily be achieved by cutting back on contracts for ships or aircraft but said that DOD was limited to getting savings from its operations and maintenance accounts by the sequester law.
"We would have had to go after more maintenance," which had already undergone drastic cuts, the official said, adding that "I would've liked more transfer authority" between accounts.
At the town hall meeting, Hagel was met by polite applause before and after his address. He used a hand-held microphone to wander the stage to deliver off-the –cuff remarks in which he reflected back on the era without the Internet and Facebook while insisting that "I'm not a dinosaur."
Before taking questions, Hagel joked that "I sure as hell could use some advice." There were only three questions from an audience that appeared resigned to the furloughs. One dealt with the possibility of raises, which Hagel said wasn't likely.
An hour had been allotted for the town hall meeting but it was over in about 35 minutes.
"I know this is going to be difficult but we'll get through this. We're going in together and we'll come out together," Hagel said.