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CR could reduce furloughs, other cuts

Mar. 17, 2013 - 01:59PM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments

Congress is racing to pass a 2013 spending bill needed to avert a partial government shutdown when the current stopgap funding measure expires next week.

Assuming lawmakers succeed, the final bill is virtually certain to continue a freeze on employee pay scales through December.

Neither the House nor Senate is likely to repeal punishing across-the-board budget cuts that recently took effect, but some agencies could get increases to help buffer some of the severest effects, although the tweaks may also pose tough choices for managers.

The Defense Department, for example, is in line for a $10.4 billion boost to its operations and maintenance account, under both the House and Senate versions of the bill. Because salaries for most of DoD’s 800,000 civilian employees come out of that account, the proposed increase should lessen the need for furloughs, said Cindy Williams, a former senior Congressional Budget Office staffer.

But operations and maintenance also pays for items like jet fuel and spare parts, said Williams, now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Because total funding will still fall short of the Pentagon’s needs, she said, “the real question is do they want to buy more fuel for operations and furlough more people” or vice versa.

Lawmakers are also moving to sustain staffing for more than 40,000 Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection agents who face furloughs as well. Under the Senate bill, CBP would get $11.9 billion this year, a $300 million increase from last year. That should avert the need for a large number of furloughs, although it’s not enough to restore the loss of routinely used overtime pay, said Stewart Verdery, a former Department of Homeland Security official.

“It’s an important but partial solution to CBP’s funding challenges,” said Verdery, now a partner at Monument Policy Group, a consulting firm.

Both the House and Senate propose about $8 billion for FBI salaries and expenses. Those funds “should help ensure that unnecessary furloughs can be prevented,” Konrad Motyka, president of the FBI Agents Association, said in an email.

FBI and CBP representatives declined comment. The Defense Department, where furloughs would save about $5 billion of the $46 billion that must be cut, will wait for the passage of legislation “before considering adjustments to current furlough plans,” said a spokeswoman, Army Lt. Col. Elizabeth Robbins.

The spending legislation now working its way through Congress will replace a six-month continuing resolution that expires March 27. Because lawmakers plan to be off next week, they must likely send a bill to the president by the end of this week or else trigger a shutdown. Numerous observers expect an agreement.

“Neither chamber has an appetite for letting the government close; they’ve seen the political fallout,” said Joanne Carney, director of government relations at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

A final deal would give agencies budget certainty through the end of the fiscal year in September. But both the Senate and House bills would repeal an executive order issued by President Obama in December to increase employee pay scales by 0.5 percent at the end of March. That extension would lengthen the ongoing freeze to a full three years.

Lawmakers are also set to lock in the $85 billion in across-the-board sequester cuts. The cuts, required under the 2011 Budget Control Act, are set to lop almost 8 percent out of most Defense Department accounts by September. Many non-Defense programs will have to absorb a 5 percent hit. Military pay and the entire Veterans Affairs Department are exempt.

The sequester kicked in March 1. Throughout the government, administrators are still scrambling to confront the effects of the cuts.

“It’s just a management nightmare in one agency after another,” said Scott Lilly, a former top congressional appropriations staffer with the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.

There’s also disagreement on what difference the current spending legislation would make. Lilly, for example, predicted that it would have little effect on the Pentagon’s plans for civilian furloughs.

At the National Treasury Employees Union, President Colleen Kelley said the extra money would not be enough to halt furloughs at Customs and Border Protection. The union represents about 24,000 CBP employees.

And by requiring the agency to keep the workforce at a certain size, Kelley said in a statement, lawmakers would make the situation worse by crimping the agency’s plan to cut the number of employees through a hiring freeze.

The final version of the 2013 spending bill likely will give DoD and other agencies “the flexibility to revisit previous personnel actions, including furloughs and firing temporary and term employees,” J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said in a statement. Instead of making those moves indiscriminately, agencies could use “mission requirements, program needs and other priorities,” Cox added.

“We will press the administration and Congress to ensure that agencies use that flexibility,” he said.

The House, which approved its version of the spending bill March 6, extends the CR for most agencies for the rest of the fiscal year but gives more spending flexibility than the current CR does to DoD and Veterans Affairs in comparison with last year’s funding levels.

The Senate version would grant similar latitude to the Agriculture, Commerce, Homeland Security and Justice departments, as well as NASA, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Science Foundation. The bill also would make dozens of changes to specific programs at other agencies that otherwise would be covered by the yearlong CR.

“We are absolutely committed to no shutdown, no showdown, no lockdown, no slamdown,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said last week in introducing the bill with the panel’s top Republican, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama. “We want to do the job.” The measure could get a Senate vote as early as Tuesday. Assuming it passes, the legislation must then be swiftly reconciled with the House bill.

To keep the total cost under the Budget Control Act’s discretionary spending cap of about $1 trillion, the Senate measure cuts more than $2 billion from military construction and reduces numerous programs at DoD and other departments.

Stephen Losey contributed to this story.

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