The Impact of Sequestration is Coming into View

President Obama appears ready to ask for another delay for sequestration, with a press conference scheduled later today. For now, though, the practical effects of what that the steep budget cuts would mean for federal employees have started to take shape.

The Defense Department and its agencies face an almost 8 percent budget cut if sequestration begins March 1, according to a recent analysis by Senate Budget Committee Republicans. Defense components already issued a hiring freeze in January and are preparing to lay off many of their 46,000 temporary and term employees and take other belt-tightening steps. The cuts will likely mean furloughs for almost the entire DoD civilian workforce for as many as 22 days — one day per week beginning April 16 through Sept. 30, the end of fiscal 2013.

In contrast, federal employee groups are expressing irritation at the lack of information from non-Defense agencies so far, which have released next to nothing about their sequestration plans. The groups expect other agencies will take steps similar to Defense.

William Dougan, national president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, said non-Defense agencies told his union they have no plans yet to share. Dougan said that represents a breakdown in the labor-management relationship and reflects the government’s troubling reluctance to engage unions before decisions are made. But the sequestration plans already outlined by Defense have Dougan worried.

Officials at non-Defense agencies refer questions about sequestration to OMB, which has said nothing about specific cost-cutting preparations.

“It’s maddening,” said John O’Grady, president of an American Federation of Government Employees local that represents some Environmental Protection Agency employees in the Chicago area. “People are sitting in their cubes, they’re waiting for this hammer to go down and nobody’s giving them any information.”

EPA has already taken some cost-stepping steps, such as offering $25,000 buyout and early retirement packages late last year to up to 117 employees in its Washington headquarters and in its Region 9 offices on the West Coast.

But even though OMB has told agencies to involve unions “to the fullest extent practicable,” EPA has declined to say what might be in store for its 18,000-strong workforce if sequestration hits, O’Grady said.

In a lengthy “request for information” sent in December, O’Grady asked the agency for a list of functions nationally that could be downsized if sequestration hits. The union also sought a list of all contracts and a rundown of any contractor-performed functions that could be transferred to federal employees.

Last month, EPA declined to provide any answers. “The union’s request is overly broad [and] unduly burdensome, and the union has failed to state a particularized need for the requested information,” wrote Mitch Berkenkemper, the agency’s director of labor and employee relations.

What are the odds of sequestration happening?

The Washington Post reported Jan. 29 that Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said the odds of sequestration taking effect are “probably even” and that there is a real chance it could take effect March 1.

And House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., told Politico on Jan. 23, “I’m pretty sure it [sequestration] is going to happen now.”

Gordon Adams, who served as a top Office of Management and Budget staffer during the Clinton administration and now teaches at American University, said sequestration “may well happen.” If sequestration does take effect, the impact on agencies will hinge on how OMB decides to “apportion” their shares of the budget after March 1, he added. The budget office could temporarily keep funding at current levels in hopes that lawmakers would reach an agreement by the end of March. If OMB instead opted to reduce funding immediately, furloughs and contracting would probably follow.

Should sequestration occur, Paul Posner, a former senior official at the Government Accountability Office, questioned whether lawmakers would have the will to keep it in place for long.

“There’s a lot of precedent here to say that, generally speaking, we don’t want to let government services get interrupted,” said Posner, now at George Mason University. “The full sequester is only one of 20 potential scenarios.”

 

What is the mood where you work? Have you been given any information about what will happen with your job or within your agency if sequestration goes through? Tell us in the comments.

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