WASHINGTON — After warning early this year of widespread furloughs with catastrophic consequences, the Department of Defense is now sending mixed messages on whether civilian workers will be forced to take off any days without pay.
At a Senate Armed Services Committee meeting on Tuesday, the top two Air Force officials said furloughs were still planned for about 170,000 civilian workers; that would affect an estimated 16,000 Air Force workers in Oklahoma.
However, Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter told reporters on Tuesday that no decision had been made on furloughs.
Speaking at the National Press Club, Carter said furloughs might still be necessary in the last quarter of the current fiscal year — meaning they would not begin until July.
Carter said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had not made a final decision on furloughs.
“But if we have to impose them, it will harm morale and productivity throughout most of our support functions,” Carter said. “And this will in turn further hurt readiness.”
Carter did not respond directly to a question of whether the Pentagon's warnings about furloughs were “overblown.”
In February, top Defense Department officials warned that nearly 800,000 civilian workers might have to be furloughed for up to 22 days for the department to absorb nearly $40 billion in cuts caused by the sequester — automatic budget cuts that went into effect on March 1.
However, after Congress passed a spending bill that relieved some of the financial pressure on the department, Hagel said no more than 14 days of furloughs would be necessary.
The Navy has calculated that it could get through this fiscal year without furloughs, but Hagel has dismissed the idea of having only some of the services use furloughs.
Oklahoma has three Air Force bases — near Oklahoma City, Altus and Enid — and the Pentagon estimated that 16,000 civilian workers at those bases would be furloughed. Most of the workers are at Tinker Air Force Base, which has a huge repair depot.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been told that an announcement on furloughs is coming soon, an aide to Inhofe said Tuesday. The announcement will likely be that some furlough days are necessary, the aide said.
Carter and the Air Force officials also said Tuesday that Congress should approve a round of domestic base closures for 2015. Carter said previous rounds of closures are saving the Defense Department about $12 billion a year combined.
Earlier base closures
The last round of base closures, conducted in 2005, has been heavily criticized for having large up-front costs and little long-term savings.
Inhofe and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, asked the Air Force officials on Tuesday to provide details on the savings from the 2005 round.
But if we have to impose them, it will harm morale and productivity throughout most of our support functions. And this will in turn further hurt readiness.”
Deputy Secretary of Defense