U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta testifies on the attack on the US facilities in Benghazi, Libya, before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, Feb. 7, 2013. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Congress on Wednesday that if the sequester (i.e. automatic government spending cuts) kicks in on March 1, he may have to shorten the workweek for the "vast majority" of the Defense Department's 800,000 civilian workers.
They would lose one day of work per week, or 20 percent of their pay, for up to 22 weeks, probably starting in late April.
Again, that’s 800,000 civilian workers.
To dispel the notion that this is mainly a problem for the nation's capital, the Pentagon's budget chief, Robert Hale, told reporters that the economic impact would be felt nationwide. The biggest potential losses, in term of total civilian payroll dollars, would be in Virginia, California, Maryland, Texas, and Georgia, according to figures provided by the Pentagon.
Hale said the unpaid leaves for civilian workers would begin in late April and would save $4 billion to $5 billion if extended through the end of the budget year, Sept. 30. That is only a fraction of the $46 billion the Pentagon would have to cut this budget year unless a deficit-reduction deal is reached.
Panetta also said the across-the-board spending reductions would "put us on a path toward a hollow force," meaning a military incapable of fulfilling all of its missions.
In a written message to employees, Panetta said that he notified members of Congress Wednesday that if the White House and Congress cannot strike a deficit reduction deal before March 1 to avoid the furloughs, all affected workers will get at least 30 days' advance notice.
"In the event of sequestration we will do everything we can to be able to continue to perform our core mission of providing for the security of the United States, but there is no mistaking that the rigid nature of the cuts forced upon this department, and their scale, will result in a serious erosion of readiness across the force," Panetta wrote.
House Speaker John Boehner put the blame on Obama and said he agrees with Panetta that automatic spending cuts would devastate the military.
Boehner released a copy of Panetta's letter formally notifying Congress that the Pentagon will have to consider furloughing a large portion of its civilian workforce if sequestration kicks in.
"The furloughs contemplated by this notice will do real harm to our national security," Panetta wrote in his congressional notification letter, adding that it would make troops less ready for combat and slow the acquisition of important weapons.
"Overall, sequestration will put us on a path toward a hollow force and inflict serious damage on our national security," Panetta wrote.
The Pentagon has begun discussing details of the furloughs with defense worker union officials.
The only civilian Pentagon workers who would be exempt from furloughs would be Senate-confirmed political appointees such as the defense secretary and deputy defense secretary, as well as a relatively small number of workers deemed essential to protect the safety of defense property and personnel.
Final Thought: There's really no sense in trying to blame any one person for all this drama. Indeed, consider the following:
Dumbest political argument in DC: who created the sequester. Bill written, passed by Congress, bipartisan vote, signed by Obama. The End.
— Jonathan Weisman (@jonathanweisman) February 17, 2013
Yes, the sequester is the result of a deal struck by Congress in 2011, the president signed off on it, and now no one wants to take responsibility for it.
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The AP contributed to this report. Featured image Getty Images.