After the Shutdown, Uncertainty Still Plagues Pentagon

Office of the Secretary of Defense by Sgt. Aaron Hostutler

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Congress averted disaster and reopened the government for business as usual. That’s the problem, say Pentagon leaders. By Kevin Baron

Now that the shutdown has ended, it’s business as usual again in Washington. At the Pentagon, that’s the problem. In a word: uncertainty.

“I know there are no guarantees in life, but we can’t continue to do this to our people, having them live under this cloud of uncertainty,” said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

Hagel said that the shutdown harmed everything for the Defense Department from training to the trust of key allies. But instead of waking up Thursday to a normal budget cycle, Pentagon planners instead are right back to where they started before the shutdown — under the budgetary thumb of sequester and continuing resolutions that temporarily fund the government weeks or months at a time.

Hagel said he is now worried about the morale of the military and its civilian workforce.

“Morale is a huge part of this,” Hagel said. “We won’t be able to recruit good people. Good people will leave the government. They’re not going to put up with this. Good people have many options.”

Bob Hale, Pentagon comptroller, was blunter as usual.

“When I read the [White House Office of Management and Budget] message about 2:30 this morning saying government was reopened, I felt like I could stop beating my head against a wall,” he said. “But I’ve got to say it would have felt a lot better never to have started beating my head against a wall.”

The shutdown cost the Pentagon, Hale said, $600 million in “lost productivity” just to start. Additionally, DoD accrued higher interest on outgoing payments not being paid. The department also took on huge costs from ordering thousands personnel to return home from travel duty — including those in schools and training programs – who will now head back out again.

The morning after the shutdown only ends one bad dream for Pentagon leaders. Now they go back to waking up to the same day all over again. “It’s a Groundhog Day approach to budgeting,” said Hale.

The Defense Department is still operating under a continuing resolution that funds the government at last fiscal year’s levels and therefore prevents any new starts of weapons programs, Hagel said. Hale said while no major programs are on hold, it does mean, for example, that because Congress appropriates the purchase of each new naval ship, the Pentagon is required by law to purchase the same numbers of ships this year as last year.

Separate from the continuing resolution, Hagel said that Congress still must address the sequester and the Budget Control Act to give the Pentagon a clue of its “long-term” budgeting. The Pentagon has gone right back to staring down at the Budget Control Act mandated cuts of $50 billion next year. If that budget requirement holds, Hale said, “we’re going to have to get smaller. I can’t tell you exactly how much. Yes, that will mean fewer civilians.”

Those civilians that get to stay in their jobs, however, may not want to. The military and its supporting civilian workforce — roughly 3 million people combined — have been stung by Washington politics.

“We’ve had three years of pay freezes,” added Hale. “We’ve had the sequester furloughs, now the shutdown furloughs. I mean, my own people are kind of looking at me and asking the question — most of them are seniors so they’ll probably stick around, but you wonder what the folks out in the field are saying. ‘I’m not so sure I want to work for this government.’”

Hagel, in his opening remarks, said the effect from the shutdown will linger.

“While all of us across the department welcome the fact that the shutdown is now behind us, I know that its impact will continue to be felt by all of our people. All of them, in different ways, had their lives affected and disrupted during this period of tremendous uncertainty. In particular, I am deeply aware of the harm that this shutdown inflicted on so many of our civilian personnel.”

“You can’t take an institution like this, as you all know because you’ve been around it a long time, and turn these things around in a month, in a week. This is the national security of America that we’re talking about, and so it does take thought and it does take planning.”

Outside of the United States, world leaders also have let Hagel know they’re not so sure about American resolve either, Hagel added. He said he has been to Asia three times this year and noted that Secretary of State John Kerry’s latest planned Asia trip was canceled because of the shut down.

“Our allies are asking questions: Can we rely on our partnership with America? Will America fulfill its commitments and its promises? These are huge issues for all of us and they do impact our national security and our relationships and our standing in the world,” said Hagel.

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