Lawmakers will work to end sequestration during the next few months, but not before Oct. 1, a Democratic senator predicted on Wednesday.
“I think, realistically, you’ve got to get something done this fall,” said Maryland’s Ben Cardin, after a town hall on furloughs and sequestration with Defense Department civilian employees at Fort Meade. “It doesn’t get easier next year,” Cardin said, referring to the impending debt ceiling debate, which Congress plans to take up after its August recess. Cardin believes lawmakers are hearing real concerns, “not just personal stories, but mission problems across the country,” while they are in their districts this month. “All of that is going to have an impact, and there will be a greater appetite to pass appropriations.”
That prediction might be optimistic. There are nine legislative days before Oct. 1, the start of fiscal 2014, and Congress needs to pass legislation, likely a temporary spending measure, to keep the government open. Then there’s the debt ceiling fight, which begins in earnest this fall. The government anticipates it will have enough money to pay its bills -- avoiding a default -- through November; so in some ways, sequestration is the government’s least immediate problem. Cardin, and many employees at Wednesday’s event, expected the mandatory governmentwide budget cuts, which took effect on March 1, to remain when the new fiscal year dawns on Oct. 1. “I don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Cardin, when it comes to ending sequestration before that date.
Defense employees are worried that fiscal 2014 will look a lot like fiscal 2013, except worse: In other words, layoffs instead of furloughs. “We planned for the furloughs, but we cannot plan for a [reduction in force],” said one civilian employee, who works with her husband at Fort Meade. The military installation is Maryland’s largest employer with 56,700 workers, 49 percent of them civilians. Defense recently reduced unpaid leave for civilians from 11 days to 6 days, and most employees will finish their furloughs by the end of this week. Secretary Chuck Hagel has said, however, that the department might have to lay off civilian workers next year if the sequester is still in place.
“Personally, I am worried,” said a security specialist who wanted to remain anonymous. “There’s been nothing official, but the buzz is that next year we could possibly be in the same predicament. I understand that we have to cut the budget, most of us do, but how long are we, personnel, going to be sacrificed?”
Cardin didn’t know if fiscal 2014 would bring RIFs, but said the government needs to provide budget certainty, so agencies and employees can adequately plan and prepare in the event of layoffs. “We need to pass budgets, so the agencies don’t have to guess as to how much money they have, and they can give you a predictable guide-path,” he told the audience.
Town hall participants, while polite, did not hold back. They expressed frustration, disappointment, and incredulity over how sequestration happened in the first place, and why government employees are constant budget-cutting targets. Cardin tried to explain sequestration’s origins with a broad overview of the budget impasse in Washington. But employees mostly wanted to know why they were saddled with a pay cut, whether they’d lose their jobs, and what Congress and the Obama administration were going to do about it all.
“Why are you guys on vacation? Why don’t just sit around a table and try to knock it out….Your fellow federal employees are getting furloughed. I’m not even paying my mortgage,” said one participant, receiving applause from the crowd.
“Well, personally, I think you would acknowledge that I have a strange way of enjoying a vacation,” Cardin replied to laughs. “I think we should be there working, I agree with you. As I told the press when they asked me the exact same question, you’ve got to get two sides to sit down at the table.”
The other problem is more of a public relations issue, or perhaps a question of out of sight, out of mind. Much of the public still doesn’t understand the ramifications of the budget cuts, Cardin said, viewing it more like a “slope” than a cliff. Unless you’re a furloughed employee, or a small business owner who doesn’t get a government contract, for example, you don’t see it as falling off a cliff. Sequestration is “horrible,” said Cardin, but “the public hasn’t quite figured it out.”