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News briefs: Week of July 15

Jul. 14, 2013 - 10:59AM   |  
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Hagel: civilian layoffs if sequester cuts continue in 2014

The Pentagon faces “draconian actions,” including civilian layoffs and suspension of military recruiting, if automatic budget cuts continue into 2014, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned in a letter to Senate leaders.

Military training and weapons buying would also suffer if the Pentagon has to absorb an additional $52 billion in budget cuts, according to Hagel. The automatic cuts, known as the sequester, began March 1 when the White House and Congress failed to reach a deal on the nation’s long-term debt.

“If the cuts continue, the (Pentagon) will have to make sharp cuts with far-reaching consequences, including limiting combat power, reducing readiness and undermining the national security interests of the United States,” Hagel wrote to Sens. Carl Levin and James Inhofe, the top Democrat and Republican on the Armed Services Committee.

Todd Harrison, a military budget expert at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, called Hagel’s letter “disappointing.” Harrison said its sparse detail reflects a lack of serious planning.

“What this letter shows is more posturing than planning,” Harrison said. “It’s likely to be completely ineffective in persuading Congress.”

The Pentagon has handled about $45 billion in sequester cuts in its 2013 budget by furloughing civilian employees and reducing military training and maintenance on equipment. Those cuts have reduced the military’s readiness to respond to a crisis, Hagel and other leaders have said.

The Pentagon is seeking $526 billion for its 2014 budget year, which begins in October.

Cutting an additional $52 billion “would reduce deployable U.S. combat power” because of reductions in training, Hagel wrote. Moreover, fewer training hours for pilots contributes to accidents.

The Pentagon “cried wolf” when those cuts were announced, Harrison said. The worst effects didn’t come to pass, he said, and that left Congress and the American public unconvinced that they were harmful. Yet some of those cuts, such as those in deferred maintenance, will have an effect in coming years, he said.

Focusing on vague, worst-case scenarios and failing to lay out specific cuts this time is not effective, Harrison said.

“The Pentagon is still stuck in same mode as last year, Harrison said. “Instead of doing difficult detailed planning, they’re relying on vague, nonspecific threats hoping spur Congress.”

Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano resigning

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is resigning in September to become the next president of the University of California system.

Head of the department since 2009, Napolitano said in a statement Friday, “The opportunity to work with the dedicated men and women of the Department of Homeland Security, who serve on the frontlines of our nation’s efforts to protect our communities and families from harm, has been the highlight of my professional career.”

Napolitano is also a former governor of Arizona.

During her time at DHS, she said, she was able to minimize threats to the American public and build a more robust emergency and disaster response system. One of the highlights of her tenure, she said, was partnering with the private sector to strengthen cybersecurity efforts.

As head of the Univeristy of California system, she will be able to play a role in educating a new generation of future leaders, she said.

“I thank President Obama for the chance to serve our nation during this important chapter in our history, and I know the Department of Homeland Security will continue to perform its important duties with the honor and focus that the American public expects,” Napolitano said.

Postal Service overtime costs topped $3.5 billion in 2012

Even as total work hours dropped again last year, the U.S. Postal Service’s overtime costs kept climbing, according to a newly released audit by the agency’s inspector general.

Paid overtime costs for fiscal 2012 amounted to $3.53 billion, up almost 7 percent from 2011, the IG found. At one Des Moines, Iowa, distribution center, overtime pay for seven mail handlers ranged from $65,000 to $76,000 each, more than doubling their respective salaries, according to the audit. Although overtime hours are not supposed to account for more than 5 percent of total workhours under a USPS management target, they added up to 7.8 percent last year, the audit said. After falling sharply in 2009, the proportion of overtime hours has risen every year since.

Auditors attributed the increases in part to the continued downsizing of the Postal Service’s workforce. But at individual mail processing plants, they also found that the number of employees did not always mesh with the workload.

At the South Florida Logistics and Distribution Center, for example, managers did not fill vacant jobs because they wanted to make sure that positions were available for career workers displaced by closings and consolidations elsewhere in the district. At the Des Moines distribution center, management also blamed heavy overtime use on understaffing, but said they are working on a plan to handle the workload better. And in the Houston district, a local agreement between the Postal Service and the National Association of Letter Carriers required a $10 per hour premium for any time worked after 5:15 p.m. on top of regular and overtime wages, the audit found.

In a written response attached to the audit, senior USPS officials agreed to pursue staffing plans and other steps to reduce reliance on overtime, but said that the inspector general “completely fails to understand an organization in transition.” The Postal Service is in the midst of consolidating more than 270 processing plants and has shed thousands of postmasters and other employees in the last year with the help of buyouts and early retirement incentives, the three officials said in the response.

“These changes are significant and impact employee schedules and operational staffing requirements,” they added. “As consolidations and realignments occur, there will be periods that workload and workforce are not aligned. The objective is to keep this to a minimum, for it cannot be eliminated in the short-term.”

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