Frustrations of 2013 Shutdown Linger As the Threat of a Repeat Grows, Says Ex-Pentagon Comptroller
Robert Hale is growing less hopeful about avoiding a lapse in appropriations next month.
Conservative lawmakers’ threats to shut down the government next month over Planned Parenthood funding have made at least one former high-level Pentagon official “less confident than a few months ago” in Washington’s ability to avoid repeating the “chaos” his department suffered under sequestration and the 2013 furloughs.
Former Comptroller Robert Hale, now freer to speak as an employee at Booz Allen Hamilton, offered a Brookings Institution audience on Wednesday some fresh details on the wasted time and dizzying mental uncertainty faced by military planners from 2010-2014 due to Congress’s perpetual budget stalemates.
“I would like to end the meat-ax approach of the sequester so we have some sense of where we’re headed,” Hale said. “Our best hope is to bring into the budget debate the entitlements and revenues, but I don’t see that until after the 2016 elections.”
A new paper by Hale outlines the harm that a budget cut of $37 billion and the Budget Control Act’s spending caps have inflicted on the Defense Department—and all agencies, he added. The 30 percent drop in the operating budget and the 16-day shutdown in October 2013 were “very disruptive, particularly the cessation of training, the stopped facilities maintenance, and the stopped civilian hiring, which made us less prepared for major contingencies,” Hale said. Citing cancelled Army and Air Force training rotations, Hale said, “The military is paid to be ready, but we weren’t ready.”
The furloughs of 350,000 Defense Department civilian workers ended up costing $400 million once Congress after the shutdown agreed to provide back pay, Hale lamented. He noted that while on furlough, employees aren’t even permitted to consult their BlackBerries. Once back on the job, some “employees waved at me but with fewer fingers,” he joked. Industry contractors were frustrated by the shutdown because they didn’t have clear guidance, he added.
Working under three Defense secretaries, Undersecretary Hale personally planned for a government shutdown five times, he said, a big waste of time. His team was forced to operate under several short-term continuing resolutions and reprogram funds rather than executing a strategically planned budget.
“We got the important stuff done, but in the longer term we started to hear about skilled technicians in depots saying they might leave,” he said. Without congressional authorization, the Pentagon couldn’t spend on military construction or environmental programs. “You can do it for a couple of months, but try it for a full year-it’s a bad way to manage,” he said. The uncertainty had a “chilling effect on how we purchase weapons effectively,” particularly with multi-year contracts, Hale said. The impact was worse on “the ones you don’t read about,” he said, including smaller weapons contracts for, say, missiles. But the most serious damage, Hale said, “is that we harmed the morale of DoD employees. That harm extended even to the military, which weren’t laid off, because many were uncertain that they would get paid.”
When Secretary Robert Gates visited Afghanistan in the fall of 2013, the troops asked him less about how the war was going than about getting their pay. “But lawmakers take it out on the civilian employees, who got lots of criticism and don’t feel valued,” said Hale, noting that morale as measured in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey declined 12 percent from 2010-2014. “That’s the biggest wound from the budget turmoil that remains today,” he said.
Hale made a plea to Congress to lay off the attacks on federal employees, who’ve been denied substantial pay raises in recent years. “Federal employees are a hard sale in the Midwest because they’re a symbol of a government that’s too large,” he said. “But I stress that these are people trying to do a job for our national security. So let’s separate them from the debate on how big the government should be. I don’t want to treat the federal workforce as a symbol of distaste in government.”
Hale’s protectiveness of the workforce was echoed by co-panelist Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., whose northern Virginia district contains the most federal employees and contractors of any in the country. “They feel unappreciated and neglected going back to the Reagan Administration” philosophy that big government is the problem, said Beyer, a Volvo dealership owner who was elected in 2014 after serving as ambassador to Switzerland.
During the 2013 furloughs, he noticed many customers of his dealership cancelling appointments for repairs and crowding his showroom during the day to window-shop but not buy. In Switzerland, Beyer got an earful from American Foreign Service officers, FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement employees who were disturbed by the furloughs.
Even among the Swiss, the shutdown “came up all the time,” Beyer said. “The Swiss love us, our movies, our Harley-Davidsons, and they’ve all been to the Grand Canyon. But they could not understand how our shining city on a hill could be so dysfunctional. They don’t understand the debt ceiling, the shutdown, sequestration, budget deficits.”
Addressing the crucial next few weeks after Congress returns, Beyer said, “I don’t see us getting a budget by Sept. 30. Most anticipate a crominbus-like [continuing resolution] as we had last December, but that was before the Planned Parenthood” issue came up, and “now no one knows how it will turn out.” Beyer said he regrets that passage of a continuing resolution based on last year’s spending levels would render moot all the work the appropriations committees did this spring and summer. His solutions would include a two-year budget and a broader budget deal rather than “kicking the can down the road.”
Hale too has hopes for some summit deal ending the sequester and addressing entitlements and revenues, along the lines of the Simpson-Bowles commission’s proposed package from 2010 or the 2013 deal brokered by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. “I hope it would be a high priority for the next administration,” Hale said. “There’s always darkness before the dawn. I think we can do it.”
(Image via Flickr user James Marvin Phelps)