Sequestration Gets Real As Furloughs Take Off

(POLITICO 14 MAY 13) … Darren Samuelsohn

Sequestration went from wait-and-see to here-it-is Tuesday when the number of furloughed federal workers hit an eye-popping 820,000.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told 680,000 civilian workers they’d have to stay home 11 days without pay. About 140,000 workers from other government agencies have already been given furlough notices.

The number is expected to grow as more department heads make their own tough decisions on how to swallow their share of $85 billion in across-the-board budget cuts.

“We don’t have a choice,” Hagel said during a town hall meeting with defense employees in Alexandria, Va. “We did everything we could not to get to this day, this way. But that’s it. That’s where we are.”

The cuts are another challenge for the White House that’s had to shift to defense this week on scandals ranging from Benghazi talking points to the IRS and Justice Department.

While multiple agency officials told POLITICO that they‘ve had the freedom to make their own decisions on what gets cut, a senior aide in one Cabinet department said there’s still a “no surprises rule” when it comes to the White House’s communications policy on the sequester.

“They’re not trying to micromanage those plans,” said the Obama Cabinet official. “They just want to know what the impact is going to be so they’re not surprised.”

What’s clear so far is that sequestration isn’t being handled the same way at each agency, several of which got more money in March thanks to Congress. The air traffic controllers and meat inspectors also got special deals that allowed them to avoid furloughs.

The Pentagon is by far the biggest loser, though Hagel was able to downgrade the forced furloughs from his original prediction of 22 days. Several other agencies with workforces too big to make their cuts any other way also have gone ahead with orders requiring employees to take unpaid leave.

At EPA, most of the agency’s 17,700 employees started their furloughs in April. About 90,000 employees at the IRS and about 8,500 at Housing and Urban Development will take their first furlough days on May 24. Both departments will be closed that day, giving employees a four-day weekend for Memorial Day.

The Interior Department’s furloughs include about 8,500 employees at the U.S. Geologic Survey, 4,100 at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and another 760 with the U.S. Park Police. The Labor Department has given notice to about 4,400 of its employees, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has ordered days off for 2,200 people. The Energy Department has laid off 200 contractors and furloughed another 2,500 at the Hanford nuclear waste cleanup site in Washington state.

Obama’s White House isn’t immune either, with furlough notices going out to about 480 aides working in the Office of Management and Budget, plus more from the West Wing and other parts of the Executive Office of the President.

Some departments have found a way around ordering furloughs, including three of the government’s largest workforces: Health and Human Services (about 86,000 employees), the Social Security Administration (about 64,000) and NASA (nearly 18,000 NASA workers).

The Department of Homeland Security has also far pulled back on plans to furlough workers at the Transportation Security Administration and Customs and Border Protection, opting instead for other spending cuts, hiring freezes and reductions in overtime pay that labor groups warn will lead to longer lines at airports and some air, land and sea crossings.

Other departments have broken their furlough news with relatively little fanfare. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s decision not to furlough employees came in an internal email sent Friday that celebrated the end of Public Service Recognition Week “on a high note.”

Duncan, who faced media scrutiny in February for prematurely saying teachers were already getting pink slips because of the budget cuts, said he’d considered furloughs for his department’s 4,000-plus employees. But he said he’d opted against them — instead choosing cuts in contract spending — because furloughs “could delay or prevent grants or loans; increase the risk of fraud, waste and abuse; and make it difficult to carry out the department’s mission.”

At the State Department, Undersecretary for Management Patrick Kennedy explained in an April 26 notice and cable to employees that there would be no furloughs because of other “cost-cutting measures implemented early in the fiscal year.”

Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank used a town-hall style meeting earlier this month to explain there would no furloughs for nearly 45,000 employees, including at the Census Bureau, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Patent and Trademark Office.

Attorney General Eric Holder went public with his plan to skip furloughs for DOJ employees via a pair of internal memos. The first notice, issued in late March after union officials blamed sequestration for the death of a federal prison guard in Pennsylvania, cited his “limited authorities” for shifting $150 million from other unspent accounts to avoid furloughs for U.S. Bureau of Prisons workers.

On April 24, Holder issued a second memo alluding to the Boston marathon bombings as he tapped several salary and expense accounts to avoid furloughs for FBI and ATF agents, deputy U.S. marshals, prospectors and other DOJ employees.

Like several other Cabinet heads, Holder acknowledged in the memo that he may not have the same options to move money if sequestration continues in fiscal year 2014.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), the House Appropriations Subcommittee chairman in charge of DOJ’s budget, agreed. “It’s kind of like all your piggy banks have broken open and moved around but you have to do this again next year,” the Virginia Republican told POLITICO. “There’s not going to be any place else to go.”

Obama officials implementing the sequester have also struggled on their messaging. Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and advocates for key domestic programs complained earlier this year that the White House had imposed a “gag order” restricting most of the Cabinet from talking about the spending cuts without following a pre-approved script cleared by OMB.

Aides may be free to talk more freely now, but they’re still in a bind on what is safe to say.

“This is kind of a no-win situation,” said Scott Lilly, a former Democratic staff director to the House Appropriations Committee. “If you figure out how to do this in a way that reduces the impact, people are going to say obviously you had more money than you needed. On the other hand, if you come out and there are some problems people identify, you’re accused of grandstanding and trying to make it worse than it really is.”

Stephanie Gaskell contributed to this report.

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