In the Line of Fire

On the ground floor of the Pentagon, a flight of escalators leads to a bustling first floor. There’s a hair salon, a florist, a tailor, a post office, a shoeshine stand. Downstairs is the cafeteria with both a Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts. There’s even a bar somewhere, too. 

It isn’t just the uniforms—Navy blues, Army cargoes, decorated officers—or the five corridors sprawling for miles that project the enormity of the Defense Department. Everything and everyone else that supports it make that enormity palpable. Approximately 750,000 of the 3 million people who receive a paycheck from the Defense Department are civilian employees. As they work behind the scenes, it’s not always easy to discern who they are or what they do.

According to some Defense officials and lawmakers, that makes it easier to scale back their ranks rather than their uniformed counterparts.

“Basically, the Pentagon can be seen as an organism,” says Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va. “Part of it is the contracting force. Part of it is uniformed. The largest part of it is the civilian workforce.”

Although he represents a Northern Virginia district where the U.S. government and federal contractors are the biggest employers, Moran has been a key proponent of cuts to the federal workforce to fend off a looming budget sequester. As part of the 2011 Budget Control Act, Defense agencies must cut $487 billion during the next 10 years. The Pentagon will face an additional $600 billion in cuts if lawmakers cannot achieve savings in other parts of the fiscal 2013 budget. 

At the heart of the department’s civilian workforce are the people who manage procurement contracts, sensitive legal work, book keeping, auditing and communications. They also maintain the plumbing, air conditioning and electricity.  

Don Hale, who represents the Defense Department locals of the American Federation of Government Employees in West Point, N.Y., says the civilian workforce is the most demoralized he has seen in the past 15 years. Recent legislative developments might be one reason.

In July, the House passed the fiscal 2013 Defense appropriations bill, which would prolong the pay freeze for Defense and Veterans Affairs Department employees specifically. The House’s $600 billion defense spending bill included a 1.7 percent pay raise for the military’s uniformed members, but ignored President Obama’s call for a
0.5 percent pay raise for civilian employees, including Defense workers.

At a congressional hearing earlier this year, Pentagon officials forecast job cuts among the civilian ranks. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta acknowledged such cuts could be detrimental to the department’s civilian ranks, but he and Defense Comptroller Robert Hale cautioned that the civilian and contractor workforce would not be exempt from the chopping block.

Don Hale’s response: “Why are you cutting us when we prove our dedication, we raise our hand? There’s just an enormous sense of pride and dedication that DoD workers have in trying to support the military.” 

From where the union rep sits, the wage-grade workforce, particularly those who work out of sight of policymakers in Washington, are most threatened by proposals to whittle down their numbers. Over the years, Hale has watched maintenance workers, roofers, painters and plumbers lose their jobs to private sector contractors in competitions for services contracts. 

The often teetering balance of federal workers versus private sector contractors has been a perennial sticking point since the former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s reign during the George W. Bush administration. Now is a good time to bring it up again, according to Hale. “We’ve lost a lot of jobs to contractors but kept a lot of jobs because we showed we could do the work cheaper and more efficiently,” he says.

Both Moran and Hale agree the private sector workforce plays an important role in the department’s mission, noting that the relationship should be a symbiotic one. Contractors lose when the civilian workforce loses, Moran says. Employing contractors can drive the local economy. But they are limited in the roles they can play in managing classified information or doing work that is inherently governmental. For example, taxpayers—and contractors themselves—know private companies cannot be involved in top-level national security decisions and cannot objectively work on awarding contracts, Moran says. 

The contractors in Moran’s district tell him they develop relationships with the federal workforce. “They say, ‘We need their objectivity and we need their professionalism,’ ” he says. “If you contract out many of these core government functions, we are going to pay a price for that.”

For workers on both sides of the debate, striking the right balance between the Defense Department’s private and public sector workforces is a policy imperative that’s long overdue. But the budget cuts looming over federal pay and jobs aren’t likely to make the challenge any easier. 

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