The devastating impact on both America’s military preparedness and its national economy from the proposed furloughs of civilian Defense Department employees could not occur at a more dangerous moment. The move not only places a disproportionate burden on Defense personnel, it also jeopardizes the safety and the economy of the entire nation.
This attempted cost-saving maneuver has been employed by municipal governments across the United States.
In New York City during the 1970s, for example, budget deficits resulted in reduced infrastructure maintenance personnel hours. It became rapidly apparent that the expense resulting from damage to subway cars, buses, bridges and other assets exceeded any sums saved.
The United States has not faced an equally hazardous international environment since 1945. Even during the darkest days of the Cold War, a reasonably united collection of allies including a militarily superior United States, Western Europe, Turkey, a variety of Pacific nations and a Chinese regime wary of Soviet intentions fairly well ensured that initiating combat would prove too risky for Moscow. Currently, Washington faces a confident and aggressive China armed with a first-rate military; a Russian government rapidly enhancing its armed prowess while resuming patrols in the air and sea around the U.S.; and openly hostile and increasingly nuclear-capable governments in North Korea and Iran. Of course, there is the ever-present threat of terrorism.
To counter this, America fields a Navy that has been reduced from 600 to 286 ships, an Army that has been reduced from 18 to 10 war-weary divisions, and an Air Force that has plummeted from 37 combat air wings to 20.
Until the announcement of plans to furlough up to 800,000 DoD civilians, however, the U.S. military had the benefit of being well-trained and efficiently equipped with planes, vessels and other assets that were well cared for. The effect on key activities — such as aircraft and ship maintenance, training and resupply — of this move, projected to save about $2.5 billion, would be to substantially lessen that advantage. Eliminating these endeavors by one day for 14 weeks does not take into account the real-world needs of personnel who have been stretched thin and equipment that has been extensively used in major and minor wars, conflicts and engagements across the globe. Impending reductions in the acquisition of replacements make top-notch maintenance more, not less, vital.
A less visible but no less real problem will occur when services to military families are cut. This is not an easy time to serve America in uniform. Prolonged and repeated overseas deployments render the care of loved ones left behind even more important. As military exchanges and schools absorb the impact of fewer civilian personnel hours, the incentive to leave the service will grow exponentially.
The exemption for foreign civilian workers, many of whom operate under a different budget line, will not brighten the moods of either furloughed U.S. citizens or those who rely on their activities. Similarly, the exemption of some political appointees also may raise eyebrows. The restriction prohibiting dedicated DoD civilians from volunteering or working from home on furloughed days is also a move sure to add salt to the wounds inflicted due to decreased services.
The overall goal of reducing the yawning annual budget deficits (which have reached the $1 trillion mark for several years) and the astronomical national debt (far more than $16 trillion) may not be helped by the furlough plan. The United States continues to reel from the worst unemployment rate since the Great Depression. The official 7.6 figure, higher than it was four years ago, doesn’t include those no longer counted due to factors such as exhaustion of unemployment benefits or withdrawal from the job market. Of those within that official figure, 38.1 percent are long-term unemployed, with prospects for re-entry into the workforce rapidly diminishing.
Analysts have predicted that reducing the economic status of 800,000 workers could add a further 1.5 percent to the unemployment roll and drag down an already weak U.S. gross domestic product. Furloughs will not be a solution; they will incur more costs, in both risk and dollars, than savings.
Frank V. Vernuccio Jr. is editor-in-chief of NY Analysis of Policy & Government, an internet newsletter covering national and international affairs. Past issues can be accessed at usagovpolicy.com.