WASHINGTON -- Senior Pentagon leaders are taking another look at sharply reducing the number of unpaid furlough days that department civilians will have to take in the coming months, suggesting they may be able to cut the number from 14 to as few as seven, defense officials said Thursday.
If the number is reduced, it would be the second time the Pentagon has cut the number of furlough days. It had initially been set at 22 days.
The officials say no decision has been made and that they are not ruling out efforts to drop the furloughs entirely. The renewed talks come as Navy leaders continue to push for eliminating required furloughs for Navy civilians. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the issue publicly.
Defense officials are reviewing a range of options to determine how many furlough days they can cut, because recent legislation gives the Pentagon more flexibility in how it allocates the required spending cuts for this year. So far, Pentagon leaders have insisted that civilians across all the military services be treated equally, suggesting it would be unfair for workers in one service to face more unpaid days off that those in another service.
Others, including members of Congress, have argued that if there is enough money in an account to pay the civilians, the department should do all it can to allow them to work. The fairness debate has also cut across federal agencies, with some defense workers complaining that employees who do similar jobs for other government departments are not subject to furloughs.
There also has been debate about how many intelligence workers would be furloughed. Intelligence officials are arguing that a certain number of workers are needed in order to adequately monitor and protect the U.S. from national security threats. The U.S. intelligence community is made up of 16 different organizations, including the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the highly secretive National Security Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office. Altogether the agencies have about 100,000 workers.
On Thursday, when asked during a congressional hearing about Army depot furloughs, Pentagon budget chief Robert Hale said he could not yet rule out furloughs for the workers. He acknowledged there is an effort to minimize them.
"Maybe we can get better, maybe we can't," he told the House Armed Services Committee. "We would like to see consistency and fairness, because if we're going to have to jump into this pool, we'd like to jump together. But no final decisions have been made on furloughs.”
Defense officials conceded, however, that there has been talk of cutting the number to about seven.
Congressionally mandated automatic budget cuts initially prompted the Defense Department to warn that the bulk of its 800,000 civilians would be forced to take 22 unpaid days off -- one in each of the last 22 weeks of the fiscal year ending Sept. 30. When lawmakers approved a new spending bill at the end of March they gave the Pentagon greater latitude in where to find the savings.
In an attempt to take some of the sting out of the more than $40 billion in across-the-board budget cuts, Congress shifted additional money to operations and maintenance accounts. Over time, defense officials have continued to study the legislation and figure out where they can cut and where they can add money back to fill shortfalls and fund priorities.
Navy officials have argued that the furloughs -- particularly for civilian workers at Navy shipyards and depots -- will end up costing the service more than the salary cuts would save.
Navy officials said they believe they can find the $300 million needed to eliminate the furloughs for roughly 200,000 civilians in the Navy and Marine Corps, and that discussions with Pentagon leaders on that proposal continue.
The officials said that according to a Navy analysis, forcing shipyard and depot workers to take 14 days off would extend the amount of time it will take for ship maintenance. They said that would create a ripple effect that will keep vessels at the shipyards longer and create a backlog.
Ultimately, the backlog would delay deployments, forcing other ships to remain at sea longer, increasing their costs.