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Furloughs have not yet started at the Defense Department, which means time is running out to fit in enough furlough days to satisfy the requirements of sequestration before the end of the fiscal year. It hasn't even been clear how many furlough days civilian defense employees would face; initially, they were slated for up to 22 days, which has been cut to 14 and now looks likely to be as low as 11, with some workers entirely exempt:
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel will announce Tuesday that most of the Defense Department’s nearly 800,000 workers are going to lose paid workdays this year, but the number of planned furlough days will be reduced from 14 to as many as 11, a senior defense official said early Tuesday.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the official said that Hagel will stick by his intention, stated in a latter last month to Congress, to “strive for consistency and fairness across the department” as he implements furloughs. That likely means that entire components of the Defense Department such as the Navy, which has said it has the money to avoid furloughing its civilian workers, will not be exempt.
But Hagel may announce added flexibility for services to decide which of its civilians to exempt. The Navy, for instance, has argued strongly that furloughing tens of thousands of shipyard employees would badly degrade readiness, and ultimately cost the DOD more.
The initial reduction from 22 days of planned furloughs to 14 came after Congress allowed the Defense Department more flexibility in implementing the sequester in its March continuing resolution, and it appears that more shifting and trimming and creativity has been applied. It's also the case that at this late date in the fiscal year, it would be difficult, maybe impossible, to implement 14 days of furloughs.
It's great to have furloughs reduced, since each furlough day represents a cut to someone's paycheck. But once again we see a stark contrast between congressionally favored programs and others. It's not just that Congress gave the DoD the chance to move money around to reduce sequestration's most visible effects. It's that defense funding has been robust enough that there was money to shift around to begin with; sequester may be a stupid way to cut defense funding, but at least defense funding is something that did need to be cut. For programs that had already been cut to the bone before March, like Head Start and the national parks, shifting money around is beside the point. They're underfunded. They've been underfunded. They will continue to be underfunded. Because poor kids and our nation's most beautiful or historically significant places don't have powerful enough supporters to break through Republican resistance in Congress.