The Defense Department is still looking for ways to reduce the number of days its civilian employees are furloughed due to sequester, Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter told members of the House Armed Services Committee Aug, 1.
"We're looking in every way as we reach the end of the fiscal year [asking ourselves], 'Can we find money somewhere?'" he said.
It's particularly difficult in wartime to predict every expense with certainty, Carter said, citing the cost of fuel and of operations in Afghanistan as examples. When those costs change in the department's favor, funds are freed up to be applied elsewhere, the deputy secretary said.
"If we do find funds between now and the end of the year, we have two priorities. One is to restore maintenance and the other is to relax furloughs," Carter said.
Furlough is too nice a word for what has happened to 85 percent of the Defense Department's civilians, he said.
Most DOD civilian employees are furloughed one day per week, the deputy defense secretary said.
"That means one ... pay day per week lost for an individual and their family," he said. "And this is not a joke. It is very serious and no way to treat people."
It would be wrong to assume, as do many in Washington, the deputy defense secretary said, that a majority of the department's 850,000 civilians are pen-pushing bureaucrats.
"Our civilians, for the most part, don't live anywhere near Washington ... and they fix things," Carter said. "They fix vehicles. They fix airplanes and so forth." And more than half of them are veterans, he added.
It takes time to reap savings from reforms, Carter said, but the timetable set by sequestration forced the department to take drastic measures. Strategically or managerially unsound cuts are likely to follow if sequester continues, he said.
"And you see this already in fiscal year '13, this year, where we had sequestration applied immediately, resulting in such actions as readiness stand-downs and furloughs," the deputy defense secretary said.
"Would you furlough somebody if you thought about it in advance and could take time?" Carter posited. "Would you stand-down readiness so that you didn't have units flying, you didn't have ships sail?"
Carter said he's "talked to too many of our folks who are missing a fifth of their pay in the last quarter of the year ... and that's a real impact on people and their families. And that's no way -- as I said earlier -- no way to treat people who are serving their country."
If full sequestration continues, the outlook for fiscal year 2014 is grimmer still, Carter said.
"It goes beyond [furloughs] to the possibility of [reductions in force]," he said. "It goes beyond -- it goes to the possibility of even voluntary separations of service members. It goes -- because it just gets worse and worse and worse over time."