In the hours before the advent of across-the-board spending cuts, conservative activists and federal employee unions differed starkly on how much harm sequestration could inflict on agencies, according to interviews by Government Executive.
“The fact that the sequester will happen surprises lot of people, most noticeably the president and my friends in the loyal opposition,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C. “But I am proud of the message that as conservatives, we are actually serious about reducing spending. The sequester is sort of a gut-check on whether to cut spending, and I’m proud my party is passing that test this week. The nation is starting to have a necessary conversation about spending.”
Mulvaney, who was elected in 2010, spoke on a conference call with allies from an array of anti-tax groups -- the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, Taxpayers for Common Sense, Citizens Against Government Waste, the National Taxpayers Union, Americans for Tax Reform and the R St. Institute. They generally welcome sequestration as a “down payment” on a long-term project of shrinking the government, including the Defense Department. “I don’t want to hollow out the defense budget,” Mulvaney said, “but worse than cutting defense is not having any cuts at all.”
Inside dozens of agencies, meanwhile, the imminent arrival of automatic cuts has prompted morale to sag, according to Robert Tobias, a professor of public administration and policy who directs the Key Executive Leadership programs at American University. “I wish I had a way of capturing the amount of time being wasted in planning for several different contingencies, and from people planning personally for the sequester,” he said. “It’s a tremendous waste of time, energy and resources.”
Tobias, who has served on federal advisory panels, said the rub is not merely the “uncertainty, but the continuing uncertainty. People are not as productive when their future is uncertain, particularly their financial future,” he said. Congress, he added, does not appear to be in touch with the toll the fiscal stalemate is taking on agencies. “They’re very distant from what it takes to effectively manage an agency.”
Mulvaney agreed that morale is a concern, but said, “I don’t manage the agencies, and this should not have been a surprise” given that agencies have had 18 months to prepare. Private-sector companies must react to such uncertainty routinely, he said. “The agencies were told by the president this would not happen, so I can’t blame the rank and file. I’m not hung up on who to blame, but I am interested if the president doesn’t know how to manage the country.”
Carl Goldman, executive director of American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Council 26 in Washington, said federal employees he talks to “are scared and nervous about how their personal financial situation will be affected. And they’re concerned about their programs, how they will be able to effectively carry out their important work when furloughed.” Most visibly, Goldman said, workers “are dismayed that we’ve reached the point where they could be furloughed, and the work won’t get done while all kinds of corporations and the super-rich are not paying their fair share of taxes.”
The sequester “is not about waste,” he added. “It’s about wrecking the government and its ability to serve the American people.” The conservatives who favor it, he said, “don’t believe in public service. They would turn it all over to the private sector.”
Barbara Coufal, an AFSCME lobbyist, said, Congress is generally aware of “the disruption all this will cause in federal public service as well as the state and local levels. Some don’t care, and some are even gleeful over the fact that it will throw a monkey wrench into the operations of the federal government.”
Other unions have expressed their frustrations. A coalition of 20 unions called the Federal Workers Alliance last week started a message board giving employees an outlet for venting their fears about sequestration and furloughs. “I have three children, a mortgage, a car payment, several credit card bills, my elderly father lives with me as well,” wrote one. “I am already struggling to survive each month. If I lose 20 percent of my income, I’m sure that I will have to sell my car and not pay my credit card bills.”
A local of the American Federation of Government Employees at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued a statement complaining that the agency had ignored a union request for advance discussion of furloughs, and has now promised only that a furlough plan will be shared with rank and file on March 4. “I can tell you that before one employee gets furloughed, EEOC needs to scrub its budget for savings, create efficiencies and give up its sacred cows,” said local president Gabrielle Martin in a statement.
Morale issues surrounding sequestration are dividing friends and families, said Mark Lucas, a former Army Ranger and reserve-status National Guard member who works in Iowa City, Iowa, on behalf of the conservative group Americans for Prosperity. “The civilians are upset at the uncertainty, which is unfortunate, but the reason is because of the White House and Congress. They are creating this monster, and creating scare tactics to make people feel like they will be hit with most significant cuts and furloughs so that they won’t have the capability to deploy as effectively.”
But at the end of the day, Lucas said, “when sequester goes through, the department heads will recalibrate. They shouldn’t furlough employees without taking a hard a look at the budget to see what we can cut.”
Correction: The original version of this story mistated Mark Lucas' status. He is a reserve-status National Guard member.