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DoD comptroller outlines shutdown plans for work, pay, travel

Sep. 27, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
The Sun Rises Over Washington
The sun rises over the Capitol on Sept. 25. The government will shutdown on Tuesday if Congress cannot pass a funding bill. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images)
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Active-duty troops will report to work next week as usual, but about half of the Defense Department’s civilian workforce — or about 400,000 people — will be placed on immediate furlough if the federal government shuts down Oct. 1, the Pentagon’s top accountant said Friday.

As a government shutdown appeared increasingly likely, officials throughout the military on Friday were scrutinizing their local activities to determine what will be considered essential and therefore an “excepted activity” to continue operations in the event that lawmakers fail to reach a new budget agreement before the start of the new fiscal year.

“Our commanders and managers are considering those issues right now,” Defense Department Comptroller Robert Hale said at a press briefing Friday afternoon.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, there was little sign of progress as the spotlight shifted to House Republicans and their decision whether to approve a funding measure that the Democrat-controlled Senate passed Friday. The main sticking point is whether a new budget will include funding for the health care reform law.

Military operations in Afghanistan and support for the nearly 55,000 troops deployed there will be unaffected by a government shutdown, Hale said.

Similarly, some basic services at installations worldwide will continue. Mess halls, fitness centers, schools and child care facilities will remain open, according to a Pentagon memo distributed Friday.

Troops’ paychecks may be delayed if the government shutdown continues for more than a week. Hale said if a shutdown stretches beyond Oct. 7, the Defense Finance and Accounting Service may not be able to run the payroll in time for the Oct. 15 paycheck.

“The earliest we’d start having trouble would be Oct. 7, and that is not a hard date. We will push it as far as we can but at some point we have to run the payroll. ... Clearly if the lapse extends to Oct. 15, there won’t be a question [that paychecks will be delayed]. There may be some time prior to that when we are faced with either having to take a chance and run the payroll and be ready — or delay it,” Hale said.

The Oct. 1 paycheck will be unaffected by a government shutdown, Hale said.

Most temporary-duty travel scheduled to occur after a government shutdown will be canceled. Temporary-duty travel in support of the operations in Afghanistan and other assignments directly related to the “safety of life and protection of property” will require approval from a service secretary or other top official.

Military deployment orders will remain in effect and permanent travel, including separation orders, will be not be canceled. Recruiting will continue. The government shutdown will have no immediate impact on the flow of new service members into entrance processing centers and boot camps, according to the memo.

Deployments to Afghanistan will not be affected, but travel to return home from Afghanistan may be delayed unless commanders in theater determine it to be essential, Hale said.

In the case of a shutdown, most military training and routine maintenance will come to a halt. Domestic commissaries may close, death gratuities for the families of fallen troops may not be paid and promotion boards will likely be put on hold, Hale said.

The Defense Department’s memo Friday defines essential activities in broad and vague terms. Civilians can be exempted from furlough if they are required for “military operations and activities authorized by deployment or execute orders, or otherwise approved by the Secretary of Defense, and determined to be necessary for national security, including administrative, logistical, medical or other activities in direct support of such operation or activities.”

In some cases, service members may be assigned to roles typically filled by civilians who are furloughed, according to the Pentagon’s nine-page memo.

But Hale said those situations will be rare. “I think for the most part they are going to be doing their same jobs,” Hale said.

Support services provided by military contractors will continue for contracts awarded before a government shutdown. But new contracts cannot be awarded during a shutdown, the memo said.

If paychecks are delayed, troops and civilians summoned to work during the shutdown will be entitled to retroactive pay if and when the government resumes routing functions. But for the roughly 400,000 civilians who are furloughed during a shutdown, they will be paid “only if a law is enacted providing the authority to pay them,” Hale said.

That would be “one more blow to the morale of our civilian workforce,” which has recently absorbed six furlough days due to defense budget spending caps that kicked in earlier this year, Hale said.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, the Senate on Friday passed a funding measure that would keep the Pentagon and other federal agencies open through mid-November, pressuring House Speaker John Boehner to act.

By passing a continuing resolution, the Democratic-controlled Senate shifted the burden of avoiding a government shutdown to Boehner and House GOP leaders.

Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, House Republican Conference deputy whip, told reporters Friday morning that GOP leaders have yet to decide how to proceed.

Asked when the lower chamber would either take up and amend the Senate-passed CR or vote on its own version, Cole said, “Probably not today.”

“I think we’re still trying to see where we’re at on that,” Cole said.

The Senate’s version is an amended version of a House-passed CR from earlier this month. The House included language Senate Democratic leaders called “toxic riders,” including a controversial one that proposed killing funding for President Obama’s signature health care law.

“I think, probably, the House will send something back,” Cole said. “What that’s going to be, I don’t know yet.”

The GOP leadership member told reporters senior House Republicans are still talking with members of their caucus and among themselves about just what the chamber will take up, with the government slated to shut down at 12 a.m. on Tuesday.

House GOP leaders likely will schedule a Sunday vote on what will be the third version of a CR.

Cole said leaders likely will send back legislation “that the Senate can’t say no to,” meaning it will closely resemble the Senate-passed measure — and likely include less-controversial riders and no health care reform language.

Staff Writer John Bennett contributed to this report

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