WASHINGTON - House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon has written Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel urging him to bring back the 400,000 DOD civilians furloughed by the government shutdown because the Pay Our Military Act signed by President Obama last night gives him the ability to do so.
In a letter to Hagel McKeon said the legistlation gives Hagel "broad latitude" in determining which civilians can work during a shutdown.
"I believe the legislation provides you broad latitude and I encourage you to use it," McKeon wrote.
The bill enabled military service members to continue to get paid during the shutdown, as well as DOD civilians "providing support" to them.
The bill makes a broad reference to Defense Department civilians without differentiating whether they have been deemed "excepted." That category is keeping an additional 400,000 Defense Department civilians on the job.
The bill language allows for "(2) such sums as are necessary to provide pay and allowances to the civilian personnel of the Department of Defense (and the Department of Homeland Security in the case of the Coast Guard) whom the Secretary concerned determines are providing support to members of the Armed Forces described in paragraph (1)"
The law's language just says civilians and "does not limit the provision of pay to civilians who were previously categorized by the administration as 'excepted' or 'essential' for the purposes of Department of Defense operations in the event of a shutdown," McKeon said. "Therefore, I strongly encourage you to use the authority Congress has given you to keep national security running, rather than keep civilians at home when they are authorized to work."
Traveling in South Korea, Hagel told reporters that the Pentagon's attorneys were reviewing the legislation "to see if there's any margin here or widening in the interpretation of the law regarding exempt versus non-exempt civilians."
He gave a glimmer of hope to the military's furloughed employees by saying: "Our lawyers believe that maybe we can expand the exempt status," though he didn't say whether it could be expanded to include all of them.
"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," he said.
Hagel said making the determination was "a priority" but did not have an estimate of when an assessment might be made.