As Congress slips closer to a second round of across-the-board budget cuts and government furloughs this fall, federal workers have begun to fight back.
With nearly one in two federal workers facing enforced unpaid leaves of absence to help meet stringent deficit reduction mandated by sequestration, about 6,000 employees have filed appeals with the Merit Systems Protection Board to block the furloughs or recover lost pay. Meanwhile, labor unions are galvanizing public employees across the country to fight the sequester and are taking their case to Capitol Hill.
During a hearing Tuesday morning before the Senate Budget Committee, Jennifer-Cari Green, a secretary at the Madigan Army Medical Center in Washington State and the single mother of a six-year-old son, said that she had struggled to make ends meet under a three-year military pay freeze even before the sequester hit. Now she calculates that her take-home pay will drop from $1,477 a month to $1,008 through the end of September (the end of the fiscal year) as she is forced to take 11 days of furlough – a 32 percent reduction over two weeks, or a 4.5 percent annual reduction.
“I live without luxuries, I don’t have cable in my home, I don’t go get my nails done, eat out frequently or do any of the things people generally think they will have to cut back on whenever times are tough,” said Green, a member of Local 1502 of the American Federation of Government Employees in Tacoma. “I often hear people talk about ‘tightening your belt,’ but I have very few options available to me.”
Instead, she said, she is falling dangerously close to the poverty line, even while she makes too much to qualify for food stamps or free school lunches for her son.
Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, an ardent foe of sequestration, said that Green’s dilemma is emblematic of the hardships being imposed by mindless, across the board cuts in defense and domestic discretionary spending that both Democrats and Republicans voted for believing a better budget bargain would emerge.
That bargain never happened.
“At a time when too many Americans are still struggling to find work, civilian defense employees are being furloughed, and small businesses are struggling to stay afloat, our economic recovery and our military preparedness is suffering,” she said.
“While I believe there are responsible spending cuts to be made in defense programs,” she added, “the current across-the-board cuts and future arbitrary spending reductions over the next eight years as part of sequestration are not the answer.”
Short of a miraculous turn-around by lawmakers and the administration Congress appears to be sliding toward a second year of sequestration -- meaning the slashed budgets of the current fiscal year will soon receive an equally unpopular sequel. The same political gridlock that set off the decade-long, $1.2 trillion sequestration last fall has only worsened in recent months. House Republicans and Senate Democrats have proven incapable of agreeing to the basic contours for a fiscal 2014 budget. Nor can they work together on immigration reform, farm legislation and food stamps.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., today ridiculed the sequester as “stupidity on steroids” because it leaves most departments and agencies with little leeway to find savings without cutting into the bone of government programs or forcing temporary unpaid layoffs.
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Budget Committee, agreed the sequester is not the ideal way to go about cutting spending. But he insisted that “the matter that we are facing today has been made substantially worse” by the fact that President Obama prevented his defense chiefs from doing substantial advanced planning to gradually phase in the inevitable cuts.”
“And I’ve heard from many people that the furloughs that may be necessary to some degree could have been avoided in many instances, but it was determined [by the White House] that to do the furloughs . . . was a way to politically drive the issue,” Sessions said.
Obama has said repeatedly he opposes sequestration and has urged Republicans to work with him and the Democrats to find a suitable alternative approach. Obama is likely to renew his call for a replacement for the sequester when he kicks off a series of economic addresses on Wednesday at Knox College, in Galesburg, Ohio.
The president will use campaign style events to refocus attention on the economy and some of his ideas for improving the job market that have been largely ignored by Republican lawmakers.
William Galston, a budget expert with the Brookings Institution and one time policy adviser to former President Bill Clinton, said recently, “I don’t see a viable majority in the two houses of Congress in favor of getting out of [the sequester] in a way that the president would accept.”
Sequestration has had serious impact on some government employees and recipients of federal aid – particularly Hispanic and black families who have seen dramatic cutbacks or outright elimination of Head Start programs for their young children.
However, there is little evidence that the reductions have undercut the economic recovery, as some predicted. In fact, the economy is expected to improve as the spending reductions mount.
Beginning July 8, about 650,000 Defense workers took the first of 11 furlough days required as part of the $85 billion in budget cuts across the board this year. The AFGE and other unions are holding workshops across the country to instruct members how to file appeals that seek to cancel the furloughs and award back pay, according to the Washington Post.
In addition to Defense Department employees, workers have filed appeals from the Internal Revenue Service, the departments of Housing and Urban Development, Homeland Security and the Interior, as well as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency. In all, about 775,000 federal workers face furloughs of four to 15 days before the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30.
Congressional leaders and the administration could still surprise the nation and scratch out a deal before Oct. 1 that sets aside the sequester and reaches an accommodation on next year’s spending levels. But any compromise would likely have to preserve more than $1 trillion worth of deficit savings over 10 years. The government can still survive on ad hoc measures that raise the debt ceiling on a short-term basis, while enabling the White House to blunt the impact of sequestration.