With sequestration of agency budgets just days away, much of the talk lately has been about furloughs. The Pentagon has warned that more than 700,000 civilian employees could be subject to furloughs lasting up to 22 days. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has talked of furloughs of up to 14 days. Many other agencies have issued similar warnings.
All of this provides a sense of inevitability to widespread furloughs of federal employees if Congress and the administration can't work out a deal to avoid a sequester. But under the law, agencies are supposed to be doing everything they can to avoid furloughs. In a report issued late last year during negotiations over a deal to avoid going over the fiscal cliff, OMB Watch noted that the Obama administration has "significant flexibility to avoid furloughs and [reductions in force]."
The continuing resolution that funds government through March 27 contains the following language, the report noted:
Amounts made available under section 101 for civilian personnel compensation and benefits in each department and agency may be apportioned up to the rate for operations necessary to avoid furloughs within such department or agency, consistent with the applicable appropriations Act for fiscal year 2012, except that such authority provided under this section shall not be used until after the department or agency has taken all necessary actions to reduce or defer non-personnel-related administrative expenses.
On top of that, the conference report on the 1985 law that created the sequestration procedures currently in place under the 2011 Budget Control Act made it clear that back then, at least, Congress intended for furloughs to be a last resort:
The conferees urge program managers to employ all other options available to them in order to achieve savings required under a sequestration order and resort to personnel furloughs only if other methods prove insufficient.
Agencies have had a relatively long time to figure out how to implement a sequester, and for many of them, it will doubtless be impossible to do so without furloughs. But they shouldn't be a foregone conclusion.