Federal employees are pushing back against a House Republican proposal to trim the defense budget by reducing the Pentagon’s civilian workforce, arguing Congress is looking in the wrong place to stanch spending.

The American Federation of Government Employees, a union representing 250,000 employees in the Defense Department, wrote a letter to leaders of the defense appropriations subcommittees in the House and Senate on Thursday, urging them against a workforce reduction through hiring deficits in the upcoming fiscal 2024 budget.

“The problem with this approach is that actual waste is not being cut while cutting the civilian workforce will hollow out the Department’s capabilities, repeating mistakes from the past,” wrote Julie Tippens, director of AFGE’s legislative department. “Spending more money on weapon systems or force structure capabilities without the appropriate civilian support for sustainment harms readiness and lethality, increases stress on the force, and incurs additional opportunity costs, detracting from modernization.”

Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., who chairs the House Appropriations Committee’s defense subpanel, first proposed reductions to the Pentagon’s civilian workforce in 2021. Calvert said in an exclusive interview with Defense News earlier this month that these reductions “would save $125 billion over five years,” though he vowed not to fire anyone.

“Like any large business, you’ve got a 5% turnover ratio per year,” Calvert said. “So if you hire 3% instead of 5%, you get a reduction over a period of time that will have a significant impact over the bottom line. Remember, our highest cost is personnel because we have a volunteer service.”

Calvert argued that the ratio of civilian employees relative to service members is historically high. The Defense Department employs more than 830,000 civilian employees on top of 1.3 million active duty service members and slightly less than 1 million National Guard and Reserve service members, according to the Congressional Research Service.

“The next labor union that supports a reduction in workforce will be the first,” Calvert told Federal Times in a statement on Friday. “But we owe it to the American taxpayers and our men and women in uniform to find inefficiencies within the Department of Defense. A bigger bureaucracy isn’t going to deter China’s aggression in the Pacific.”

He stressed that as defense spending chairman, he’s “interested in finding savings and modernizing the operations” of the Defense Department.

This fiscal year, the federal government is expected to spend about $248 billion on civilian payroll across federal agencies, and personnel expenses are the most costly overhead for the Pentagon.

However, the AFGE letter cited a 2020 article in Foreign Affairs by current Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, in which she wrote that the department failed to find $10 billion in administrative savings through civilian workforce reductions in the five-year period between FY15 and FY19 after Congress directed it do so in FY13.

Instead, Hicks explained, the reductions “rarely succeed” in saving money because they “merely shift the work being done by civilians to others, such as military personnel or defense contractors.”

Despite Hicks’ previous skepticism of the idea, the AFGE letter stated there are “indications that the Department of Defense is likely taking the path of least resistance in developing its Fiscal Year 2024 budget by in fact instituting civilian reductions” over its Future Years Defense Program — the government’s projection of force posture, resources and programs in a five-year period.

Tippens said neither Congress nor the Pentagon looked at other sources of outsized spending, like pricing models by defense contractors or enforcement of statutory requirements for a comprehensive contract-services budget.

Her letter noted the Defense Department failed to submit a legally mandated comprehensive contract-services budget, meaning congressional funding bills “show costs for the civilian workforce but omit the costs for contractors, creating massive incentives to under-execute civilian hiring projections and shift the funds to contract services.”

AFGE likens this to “a massive slush fund for service contracts.”

Meanwhile, the Defense Department — like other federal agencies — is competing for talent against a private sector that boasts unfettered salaries and flexible work schedules.

“The Department is in danger of falling behind both the private sector and global competitors, namely China,” according to a report on the health of the civilian workforce by the Defense Business Board.

Randy Erwin, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, said he is surprised the idea was floated so openly, especially since Republicans have historically bolstered defense spending. NFFE represents 110,000 unionized government workers across agencies.

“With what is happening in Ukraine and the global implications that stem from it, this is not the time to be cutting civilian personnel at the Department of Defense,” he told Federal Times. “You cannot be for a stronger defense and against maintaining the personnel necessary to achieve it.”

House Democrats are already poised to oppose Calvert’s civilian workforce reduction proposals, and it’s unclear how the Senate would react.

“Reducing the civilian workforce doesn’t reduce any of the missions that the Department of Defense has — it just means the DoD is less equipped to complete those missions safely and successfully,” Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota, the top Democrat on the House defense appropriations subcommittee, told Federal Times in a statement.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.

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