Legality of furloughs questioned

McCarthy missing from 31 signatories on letter to secretary of defense

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Following questions relating to the fairness, necessity and cost-effectiveness of DOD furloughs, which are expected to have a significant impact on the thousands employed at China Lake, a faction of 31 members of Congress have challenged even the legality of furloughs for entities that are supported through Defense Working Capital funds.

“It appears that there are substantial legal and economic questions surrounding the decision to impose furloughs on these employees,” states the letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.

Furloughs have been characterized as a recent concession in a game of political chicken that stretches back more than a year and underscores the tension polarizing parties on either side of the political divide. In 2012 Congress committed to cutting some $1.2 trillion from federal spending. If those cuts could not be made, DOD and social programs would lose $500 billion — each.

Last fall, talk of a fiscal cliff— where concurrent losses of tax revenue and reductions in federal spending would result in a tanked economy — created an additional layer of tension to partisan negotiations. Months continued to pass, and when Congress failed to present an alternate plan, sequestration trigged algorithmic cuts that included furloughs.

DOD employees had months more of uncertainty as the number of furlough days was weighed (and ultimately reduced from 22 to 11). Unofficial reports indicate that although the Navy and some other branches of service were able to balance budgets without the use of furloughs, Hagel applied the solution across the board.

The question then became whether furloughs at China Lake would be counterproductive to national defense.

Previous commander Rear Adm. Mat Winter, in a 2012 message to the China Lake Alliance, told members of our community that the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division does not inherit a budget, it inherits a debt, then competes in the free-enterprise system to bring work here.

That lack of direct funding from the federal government has protected China Lake from furloughs in the past, say insiders.

Under the current funding model, lost days for Weapons Division employees do not necessarily save the federal government money. In fact, the resulting delays of lost time could ultimately cost more money.

Complicating that for China Lake is the fact that employees on the Naval Air Weapons Station side of the house — who provide everything from safety and security to public infrastructure support — are directly in the line of fire for furloughs.

Those questions may finally be addressed publicly if Hagel responds to the letter from the 31 members, who are asking for an explanation “as to whether the department considers civilian employee at Working Capital fund entities to be ‘indirectly funded government employees of the Department of Defense,’ as defined in 10 USC 129.

“If so, we further request an explanation of the legal justification the department is using to impose furloughs on these civilian workers, despite the explicit protections afforded them under this statute.”

The letter goes on to state that while DOD sought to alleviate a shortfall in its operating funds for this fiscal year, “we request the department clarify its rationale in determining that furloughing these workers would reduce its operating expenses.

“We are concerned that, in addition to the loss of pay these civilian employees now face and the subsequent impact this will have on our local communities, moving forward with these furloughs will reduce the ability of our civilian workforce to complete workload which is already funded. Further restricting available workforce resources will result in mission delays, eventual overtime and greater cost to the department and taxpayers.”

China Lakers also point out the conspicuous absence of Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s name on the letter.

When the News Review reached out to McCarthy’s office to ask his position on the issue, he forwarded the following statement through a staffer:

“I am equally concerned with the issues raised in this letter and I am working with my House colleagues as we continue to gather information.

“The administration continues to institute furloughs even though the House provided flexibility in our recent military funding legislation (HR 933) that we signed into law. The House has continued to propose savings to replace sequestration that continues to be ignored by this administration,” continued the statement.

“I agree with the issues raised in the letter and on behalf of our congressional district, I will ask Defense Secretary Hagel to brief me and the other 31 Members of Congress for answers.”

Story First Published: 2013-07-03