WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced today that Pentagon has made the $37 billion spending cuts mandated by sequestration and can now reduce the total number of furlough days for civilian employees from 11 to six.
The reduction means that the furloughs will end for most of the employees next week, as they have already done their six days, senior Defense officials told reporters today.
In a memo, Hagel outlined how the Pentagon had managed to make up for the budget shortfall by making "painful and far reaching changes" that included hiring freezes, layoffs of temporary workers, cuts in facilities maintenance and training.
"The Air Force stopped flying in many squadrons, the Navy kept ships in port, and the Army cancelled training events," he said. "These actions have seriously reduced military readiness."
Even with those changes, the Pentagon was still roughly $11 billion short of the budget sequestration demanded. In May, Hagel announced 11 day furloughs for roughly 640,000 civilian employees after he decided that any deeper cuts to training and maintenance would jeopardize the military's "core readiness mission and national security."
Last month Congress approved a plan that allowed the Pentagon to transfer funds from acquisition accounts to be used for day-to-day operations. Those funds, along with savings in other areas, such as transportation of equipment out of Afghanistan and from the furloughs themselves, allowed the Pentagon to determine that it could "make some improvements in training and readiness and still meet the sequestration cuts," Hagel said.
Beyond most employees ending their furloughs next week, there are other immediate effects from the announcement today. For example, Pentagon officials said that educators and staff in Defense Department schools will now be exempt from furloughs that were scheduled to begin at the end of August, allowing the school year to begin as normal.
Hagel made it clear that though the Pentagon was ultimately able to meet the requirements of sequestration, the situation was far from ideal.
"This has been one of the most volatile and uncertain budget cycles the Department of Defense has ever experienced," he said. "Our fiscal planning has been conducted under a cloud of uncertainty with the imposition of sequestration and changing rules as Congress made adjustments to our spending authorities."
The secretary called on Congress to look ahead to next year's budget, which begins in October. He warned that if the current Budget Control Act doesn't change, the Pentagon will be forced to cut $52 billion next year - a 40 percent increase from this year's cuts.
Though Hagel said the department will do "everything possible to avoid more furloughs," without more certainty from Congress he said he could not be sure of what will happen next year.