US Defense Department lawyers are working 'to see if there's any margin here or widening in the interpretation of the law regarding exempt versus non-exempt civilians,' said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who is traveling in South Korea. (Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo)
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon will continue to award hundreds of millions of dollars in acquisition, services and other types of contracts despite a government-wide shutdown, but don’t expect to hear about them.
The Defense Department will not publicly announce contracts during the shutdown, Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a Pentagon spokesman, wrote in an email.
But that should not stop the military services and defense agencies from signing pacts for equipment, supplies and other items.
The Pentagon will do “one big announcement” of the contracts awarded during this period when the shutdown ends, Christensen wrote.
So how is this possible? It is because the money being used to sign the deals was appropriated by Congress in prior years.
At the same time, the Pentagon is looking to widen the number of civilian employees allowed to work despite the first government-wide shutdown in 17 years, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said.
Hagel, who is traveling in South Korea, said DoD lawyers are working “to see if there’s any margin here or widening in the interpretation of the law regarding exempt versus non-exempt civilians.”
About 400,000 civilian workers are facing furloughs until Congress passes a fiscal 2014 appropriation. Lawmakers in the Democrat-controlled Senate and the Republican-controlled House were unable to strike a budget deal before the fiscal year ended at midnight on Monday, causing a shutdown.
“Our lawyers believe that maybe we can expand the exempt status,” Hagel said. “We don’t know if that’s the case, but we are exploring that, so that we could cut back from the furloughs some of the civilians that had to leave.”
Most DoD civilian workers have already been furloughed six days this year, the result of the Pentagon cutting $37 billion from its 2013 budget due to sequestration.
“This is going to impact the future of a lot of our employees,” Hagel said. “I’ve had a number of senior civilian employees in DoD talk to me last few months about their futures. Their spouses are not happy. They have families.”
It is still not entirely clear which civilian employees will continue to work during the shutdown. For example, civilians supporting activities such as combat operations in Afghanistan are exempt. Also, some civilians at military headquarters were still in their offices Tuesday because their salaries are paid through working capital funds.
The funding in those accounts — which are typically used by DoD to pay for services — is likely leftover 2013 money, said Gordon Adams, a professor at American University and former White House budget official.
Congress passed, and President Barack Obama signed, into law on Monday a bill that pays active-duty military throughout the shutdown.
Andrew Tilghman contributed to this report.