Fiscal cliff deal leaves Pentagon sour, still eyeing sequestration

There is no joy in Pentagon-ville.

Defense Department officials voiced pointed frustration with Congress on Wednesday, one day after lawmakers passed a so-called “fiscal cliff “ deal that put off the automatic budget cuts known as “sequestration” for just two months, leaving up to 800,000 civilian DOD employees still facing furlough notices.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, a former White House budget director and chairman of the House Budget Committee, in a statement wryly thanked Congress for finding additional time to avoid sequestration, which was due to take effect on Jan. 2. Congress has had more than one year to find a way to address the 2011 Budget Control Act's call for across-the-board defense spending cuts totaling $600 billion over 10 years, or nearly $60 billion this year alone, which military officials have said would cripple national security functions.

“For more than a year, I have made clear that sequestration would have a devastating impact on the [Defense] Department,” Panetta said, in a statement. “Over the past few weeks, as we were forced to begin preparing to implement this law, my concerns about its damaging effects have only grown.”

Chief among those concerns has been which of the department’s functions could be abandoned or delayed, and which employees would be first in line for job furloughs.

“This is not an abstract concept,” said Pentagon press secretary George Little, briefing reporters Wednesday morning. “This is something that will have an impact on real people doing real work on real missions for this department.”

“Congress,” Panetta said, “has prevented the worst possible outcome by delaying sequestration for two months. Unfortunately, the cloud of sequestration remains. The responsibility now is to eliminate it as a threat by enacting balanced deficit reduction. Congress cannot continue to just kick the can down the road.”

But that’s a warning Panetta has uttered before, and it’s precisely what Congress did, with late night Senate and House votes over New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) also blasted the fiscal cliff deal for leaving sequestration hanging over commanders’ heads. But, in a Tuesday statement, McKeon put the onus on President Obama, saying, “It is unfortunate that President Obama missed an opportunity to honor the promise he made to our military and veterans, when he assured us all that sequestration would not happen.”

Little said the deal left DOD officials still determining how many and which of the 800,000 employees actually would need to receive furlough notices. If Congress misses this new deadline, DOD employees would be laid off in rotations to meet the spending cut requirements, but those numbers have not been determined, Little said.

In one way, delaying sequester by two months makes DOD planners’ jobs more difficult, Little argued. If a new deal is not reached, the window for cutting enough spending during this fiscal year only gets smaller, and therefore the cuts must be more severe.

“If you do the math, then you get to a point where you have to spread the furloughs across a relatively wide swath of the DOD civilian population in order to achieve the savings required under sequester. So, I don’t have a precise number," he said, of employees or how many days in advance the Pentagon would be required to give notices.  “I don’t know if it's 100,000 or 200,000. I don't how many days, but it's something we had to look at.”

Additionally, Pentagon budget writers are still figuring out the deal’s impact on the fiscal year 2014 budget request, which historically is released January or February.

Brendan Hoffman/Pool via Bloomberg