The real-world impact of Washington's deficit impasse is beginning to be felt in the nation's military, as budget uncertainty leads to concrete cuts.
Warning of an increasingly intractable budget crisis, the Pentagon’s No. 2 official has ordered military chiefs to begin making drastic spending cuts ranging from freezing civilian hiring and eliminating all temporary jobs to canceling ship maintenance, the Washington Guardian has learned.
Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter sent the instructions to military leaders as the Pentagon faces the increasing possibility of billions of dollars in shortfalls because of two simultaneous storms.
First, Congress has not approved a 2013 budget and is therefore funding the government through continuing resolutions (CRs) at 2012 spending levels, while some of the Pentagon’s strategies had called for higher spending levels this year.
Secondly, some lawmakers are threatening to allow draconian spending cuts to take effect this spring under the fiscal cliff scenario known as “sequestration.”
“Given the overall budgetary uncertainty faced by the Department, and in particular the immediate operational issues presented by the CR, it is prudent to take certain steps now in order to help avoid serious future problems,” Carter wrote in the memo sent to senior officials on Thursday and Friday and obtained by the Washington Guardian.
Carter’s memo authorized a set of immediate cuts because of the CR issue, and asked Pentagon leaders to submit plans by Feb. 1 on what further cuts they could make to cope with sequestration. He asked them to focus on reductions that could later be restored if a budget deal is reached with Congress. “To the extent possible, any actions taken must be reversible at a later date,” he wrote.
But a Defense official told the Washington Guardian that most of the cuts, once started, will be hard to reverse inside the mammoth bureaucracy of the Pentagon.
"We're definitely going to try. It's a goal but one that is nearly impossible,” said the official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to talk to the media about the specifics of the budget cuts.
Carter’s memo follows a stark press conference last week by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, who warned the military was in danger of losing readiness within a year if budget uncertainty persisted. Dempsey and outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta have warned of the impact of the spending cuts, but Carter's memo was the most specific to date identifying what programs, projects and spending are at risk.
The memos and public statements were designed both to pressure lawmakers to avoid the drastic spending cuts planned for this spring in the absence of a budget deal, and to get directors inside the Pentagon to begin reducing spending after weeks of waiting and watching for a conclusive deal between Congress and the White House, officials said.
"The big thing is, we are shifting from the guidance of ‘don't sequester yourselves before it takes place’ to 'it is prudent to take certain steps now in order to avoid a more serious situation later,'" Army Lt. Col. Elizabeth Robbins, a spokeswoman for the DOD, told the Washington Guardian on Monday night.
"We have to take action now to keep us operational as much and as long as possible," she added.
Carter’s memo laid out sweeping cuts that need to be enacted starting next month, including:
- Freezing civilian hiring, except for “mission critical activities;”
- Beginning termination of temporary hires and notifying contract employees their contracts won’t be renewed;
- Reducing base operating funds and facilities maintenance funds;
- Cutting back on travel, training and conferences;
- Canceling 3rd and 4th quarter ship maintenance activities.
The Pentagon official said nearly all temporary jobs would likely be eliminated, ranging from summer students hired at base day camps to extra maintenance contractors and vacation relief clerks.
The official added that canceling ship and aircraft maintenance in the spring and summer would force the Navy and Air Force to focus resources on the vessels most likely needed for war “because we don’t want to short our war effort.”
The threat of maintenance cuts and summer job losses is likely to have political repercussions, creating pressure inside the congressional districts that host military bases and rely on such business for jobs and economic growth. That could push those districts' representatives to respond.
Defense Secretary-Designate Chuck Hagel, a former GOP senator, is likely to field several questions on the Pentagon’s spending plans as his confirmation winds its way through the Senate in the shadows of this memo.
Carter’s memo prompted immediate action by several of the service branches, officials said. And the Pentagon officials are bracing for the growing possibility that Congress won’t pass any budget in 2013, Carter’s memo states.
“While we are hopeful of avoiding budgetary problems, draft Component plans should reflect the possibility that we may have to operate under a year-long CR and that sequestration takes place,” he wrote.
Sequestration is the automatic set of spending cuts that will take place in early March under present budget law. As part of the agreement to raise the debt ceiling in 2011, Congress mandated a series of deep cuts -- half in defense -- if it didn't come up with a deficit reduction plan that could pass both houses and that President Barack Obama would sign.