Lawmakers: Shutdown More Harmful To Military Than Sequestration, Summer Furloughs

As damaging has sequestration has been to the military, with its arbitrary cuts causing backlogs of maintenance, administrative work and more, the government’s shutdown could prove more damaging if it is not ended soon, House Armed Services Committee member Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) said.

Courtney said Oct. 2 that he had been in touch with three major military installations in and near his district--the Naval Submarine Base New London, the Coast Guard Academy and the Army National Guard’s Windsor Locks Armory.

U.S. Naval Academy
The government shutdown sent home about 40 percent of professors at the U.S. Naval Academy, as well as about 1,000 faculty and staff at the U.S. Air Force Academy, lawmakers said. Photo courtesy U.S. Naval Academy.

“As usual, given a mission they’re going to make it work,” he said of the installations’ leadership. “But it’s hard to imagine that it’s not going to erode the readiness of the base over time if this thing drags on.”

Asked about the impact if the government shutdown--caused by the House and Senate being unable to agree on a mechanism to fund the government before the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1--Courtney said this could be worse than the summer’s furloughs.

“We’ve been going through this exercise on the committee now for the last more than a year of warning flags being put up by all the branches of the harm of arbitrary budgeting events such as sequestration,” he said. “This, I think, is sequestration on steroids to the extent that, at least with sequestration there was some--and it’s hard to even give it any credit for anything – but agencies were able to have some ability to control whether there were furloughs. The Coast Guard, for example, the academy had no furloughs because Homeland Security was able to find other ways to apply sequestration.”

Courtney said he didn’t have a comprehensive list yet of the exact implications military-wide, “but it doesn’t take a genius to understand that all the harm we’ve heard about with sequestration is going to be just multiplied by a huge factor if this thing drags on.”

Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), who chairs the House Armed Services readiness subcommittee and whose district stretches from Marine Corps Base Quantico down to the military-rich Hampton Roads area, agreed the shutdown was more harmful to his district than the summer furloughs. Over the summer, he said, at least a few days a week an office’s entire staff was likely in and working together as a team. Now, just weeks after the first round of furloughs ended, entire chunks of staff are missing for an unknown length of time.

“At the very best they’re marking time there with things that need to be done,” Wittman said on Oct. 2. “Trying to recapture readiness, trying to recapture training time, trying to fix ships and aircraft and land vehicles and systems is even tougher because maybe the folks you rely on there are not coming in.”

Navy-wide, more than 75,000 employees have been furloughed, including 12,000 civilian employees at government shipyards that do repair and maintenance work on ships and submarines, Navy spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Rebecca Rebarich said.

At Norfolk Naval Shipyard, Va., 3,600 employees stopped working, while 1,500 employees at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine, 3,500 at Puget Sound Shipyard in Washington, and 3,000 at Pearl Harbor Shipyard in Hawaii, were told to stay home, she said.

Work at private shipbuilding yards has continued under previously funded contracts, she said.

One exception to the furloughs was at Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) at Washington Navy Yard, the site of the Sept. 16 shooting rampage that left 12 dead in addition to the perpetrator. Navy officials said more than 2,000 employees there were granted furlough waivers to avoid further adding to the trauma they had so recently experienced.

In Courtney’s district, all civilian staff at New London associated with deploying submarines, from the crane operators to those who load the Tomahawk missiles into their launch tubes, have been excepted from being furloughed. But the administrative staff behind all the deployment-related needs have been furloughed. About 750 of the base’s 1,300 total government civilians were sent home Tuesday, including many departments in the health clinic that handle non-emergency cases, he said.

At the National Guard armory, about 550 dual-status military technicians--who come to work in uniform but are technically classified as civilian workers during the week and military personnel only during training or when activated--were sent home. Courtney said these personnel do vital maintenance on Army helicopters, for example, which will clearly erode their ability to respond to needs in Connecticut or for a national event.

Several lawmakers have questioned why DoD officials have chosen to furlough so many civilians, particularly in light of the Pay Our Military Act, which they say was meant to keep all DoD employees working throughout the shutdown.

For instance, the U.S. Coast Guard Academy did not furlough any of its civilian professors, considering them all essential to the academy’s mission and therefore "excepted," Courtney said. But the U.S. Naval Academy did furlough its civilian professors, forcing uniformed professors to cover multiple classes to make up for those sent home--about 40 percent of professors, Wittman said. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) said on the Senate floor on Oct. 3 that about 1,000 personnel at the U.S. Air Force Academy in his state were furloughed, though he did not clarify how many were professors versus support staff.

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