When Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced in February that he was going to have to send about 650,000 civilian employees home without pay for 22 days this summer to cover the steep budget cuts triggered by sequestration, he vowed to find a way to reduce those days.
In March, he got that number down to 14 days, thanks to a continuing resolution passed by Congress. Then in May, Hagel once again announced that he would only have to furlough for 11 days — but this time came the grim news that it was really going to happen. “We did everything we could not to get to this day,” Hagel told a crowd of civilian defense workers at the Mark Center in Alexandria, Va., at the time. Still, he vowed to try to find a way to further reduce that number. On July 8, the furloughs began.
On Tuesday, Hagel announced that his staff, including his revered comptroller, Bob Hale, were able to find just over $1 billion in savings to chop the number of furlough days to just six.
So how do you come up with $1 billion in a matter of weeks?
There’s no magic formula, a senior defense official told reporters. “It’s like pouring water and milk into a glass and when it overflows, blaming the milk,” the official said. “It came through a variety of factors.”
There were three main components that got them to that number. First, there are stockpiles of equipment that military leaders planned to ship home from Afghanistan that will now sit there waiting until Oct. 1, when the next fiscal year begins. Second, each of the services, especially the Navy, was able to find further savings through cost-cutting measures and other efficiencies. The Navy was nice enough to give the Army — which has the biggest shortfall — some of its money; at least $300 million, officials said. And finally, Congress approved more reprogramming requests, allowing the bean counters to move money around, mostly from acquisition accounts to operating accounts.
All that added up to just over $1 billion — or five furlough days.
Still, there was little celebration at the Pentagon. Fiscal year 2014 is looming and many of these same problems will still exist. Hagel needs to come up with another $52 billion if the Budget Control Act of 2011 stays in effect – or 40 percent more than fiscal 2013’s cut under sequestration. Another round of furloughs could be on the way.
“Facing this uncertainty, I cannot be sure what will happen next year, but I want to assure our civilian employees that we will do everything possible to avoid more furloughs,” Hagel said in a statement.