WASHINGTON – The Pentagon will furlough 650,000 civilian employees without pay for just six days this year after months of warnings that mandatory budget cuts might idle defense workers for far longer, officials said Tuesday.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said fewer furlough days became possible after officials found savings elsewhere in the military budget.
In addition, Hagel said the ongoing U.S. withdrawal of combat troops and equipment from Afghanistan was proving less costly than anticipated, and money was shifted from Pentagon weapons acquisition accounts to help pay for personnel.
While defense workers will welcome the change, it may complicate the task of staving off further Pentagon budget cuts next year.
Critics are likely to argue that defense officials painted doomsday scenarios that overstated the likely effects of the $37 billion in Pentagon budget cuts, part of a governmentwide spending reduction known as the sequester that took effect in March after Congress and the White House failed to agree on a budget plan.
The Defense Department initially predicted that civilian workers might face 22 days without pay this year. In May, that was halved to 11 days. The latest cut nearly halves it again.
Around 85 percent of the Defense Department’s 850,000 civilians have been furloughed, most of them for one day a week over the last five weeks. Most of those who are exempt from furloughs are foreign nationals or workers who are not paid through money appropriated by Congress.
Hagel reiterated Tuesday that the mandatory budget reductions have “seriously reduced military readiness” by forcing cuts in maintenance and training. But he acknowledged that, in addition to reducing furloughs, the Pentagon has been able to resume many of the training and other operations it previously had curtailed, after Congress agreed to let the Pentagon move money between accounts.
“The Air Force has begun flying again in key squadrons, the Army has increased funding for organizational training at selected units, and the Navy has restarted some maintenance and ordered deployments that otherwise would not have happened,” he said.