A key veterans group is optimistic that U.S. lawmakers will reach a budget deal next week and won’t have to delay payments to troops, an official said.
If Congress doesn’t pass a budget or a funding resolution by Oct. 1, the start of the government’s new fiscal year, many agencies and offices will temporarily close. Without money in the federal coffers, many of the Defense Department’s 800,000 civilian employees will be forced to take unpaid leaves of absence and 1.4 million active-duty troops will see their paychecks delayed.
"We think that it will be resolved before the government shuts down, but that’s just our opinion," Philip Odom, deputy director of government relations at the Alexandria, Va.-based Military Officers Association of America, the largest veterans organization for officers and their survivors, said in a telephone interview. "Nobody can predict with any accuracy what’s going to happen."
The Republican-led House of Representatives last week passed a stop-gap funding measure, known as a continuing resolution, to keep the government open through mid-December. But the legislation included a provision to defund a portion of President Barack Obama’s signature health care law, the 2010 Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
The Democrat-led Senate in coming days plans to vote on a version of the bill that would fund the government, including the health care law.
"It’s a mess," Odom, a retired Air Force colonel, said of the political showdown on Capitol Hill over the budget. Troops are "victims of this standoff," he said.
The military’s active-duty personnel are paid twice a month, around the first and 15th. Those payments would temporarily stop under a government shutdown. Troops would still have to serve, but they wouldn’t receive paychecks until the House and the Senate reach a spending deal, which could take weeks.
The government in 1995 was twice shuttered due to political gridlock, once for five days in November and again for 21 days beginning in December. Military personnel and federal civilian workers later received back pay. But unlike their uniformed counterparts, civilian employees aren’t protected under the law to recoup the money they would lose from mandatory unpaid leaves of absence, or furloughs.
Rep. C.W. "Bill" Young, R-Fla., chairman of the House defense appropriations subcommittee, has said troops may not get a mid-October paycheck.
The Pentagon has begun planning for a potential shutdown.
"Prudent management requires that we be prepared for all contingencies, including the possibility that a lapse [in funding] could occur at the end of the month," Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter wrote in a memo to employees, according to a Sept. 24 news release.
"While military personnel would continue in a normal duty status, a large number of our civilian employees would be temporarily furloughed," Carter said. "To prepare for this possibility, we are updating our contingency plans for executing an orderly shutdown of activities that would be affected by a lapse in appropriations."
Pentagon Press Secretary George Little told reporters that administration officials are working with lawmakers to avoid a government stoppage.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel "has made it clear that budget uncertainty is not helpful for us in executing our budget efficiently, and a shutdown would be the worst type of uncertainty," Little said, according to the release. "A shutdown would put severe hardships on an already stressed workforce, and is totally unnecessary."
Temporarily withholding pay to troops, including those serving in Afghanistan, is "a real prospect right now," Odom said. "This is the worst I’ve seen of this sort of heavy-handed politics."