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Sequester-Driven Layoffs, Furloughs Possible on Hill

If the sequester comes to pass, officials warn that the country’s defense operations would be significantly weakened. So would the security systems in place on Capitol Hill.

On Thursday, Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer summoned his nearly 925 employees to break the news that the looming automatic spending cuts could necessitate furloughs and layoffs, the first in institutional memory for the department.

“You can’t sugarcoat bad information,” Gainer told CQ Roll Call on Thursday afternoon.

Gainer reported to his team that depending on how much of a cut the Office of the Sergeant-at-Arms is forced to make, management could be looking at a salary shortfall of $4 million to $5 million and general expense reductions of $7 million. Those numbers would only increase over time, Gainer said, noting that his department has already shaved $22 million from its budget over the past three years.

“They’ve all been working very hard,” Gainer said of his team, which includes Senate security officers and officials, information technology specialists and staffers working on a range of administrative tasks. “There have not been raises, we’ve [frozen] hiring, we’ve cut back on some of our contracts and buying, and I don’t know what, if any, relief we’ll have.

“But the organization in the next 10 years will not look like that of the last three years or five years,” he continued. “We’re all going to have to do the proverbial ‘more with less.’”

The determination of whether to trigger layoffs and furloughs — every employee would probably have to take one day of unpaid leave per month beginning in April — would depend on how many employees choose to take advantage of a Voluntary Separation Incentive Payment program. The program, announced Thursday morning, would give most employees a financial reward for retiring from the department.

Employees have until Feb. 28 to take advantage of the program, and they would have to retire by April 30.

Gainer said Thursday that employees were already beginning to request retirement paperwork, something he called a good sign given the grim alternatives.

As for where he might look to lay off employees if it becomes necessary, Gainer said the chamber’s overall security will not fall victim to the budget knife. Nor, he said, will information technology security be affected, especially as cybersecurity threats increase.

But the general reduction in manpower would hit home not only for the stretched-thin Senate Sergeant-at-Arms staff, but also for the lawmakers and their staffers who rely on support services that Gainer’s team provides.

The Capitol Police is also looking to make changes that could lead to inconveniences for the people who work on Capitol Hill.

Last week, Capitol Police spokesman Shennell Antrobus said in an email that the force was devising a sequester contingency plan “carefully designed to accommodate the reduced funding levels; with the goal of ensuring that the safety and security of the Capitol complex will be maintained.”

On Thursday, Gainer, who is also chairman of the Capitol Police Board, said the plan proposes budget cuts by closing entrances around the Capitol complex. This strategy would result in saving overtime payments to the officers assigned to secure these doors and security checkpoints.

The House Sergeant-at-Arms’ office declined to comment on how it plans to confront the potential sequester. It might be less of a challenge for the department’s leader, Paul Irving, than for his Senate counterpart, however, given that Irving has considerably fewer direct reports. The House Chief Administrative Officer handles all of the corresponding administrative functions that Gainer’s office oversees in the Senate.

Whatever changes are felt in the legislative branch, they were predicted months ago by Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., who was chairman of the House Administration Committee and a fierce defender of the institution of Congress up until his defeat in November.

“I’ve always thought the legislative branch was a pretty important function, as opposed to many different executive branch agencies, and if sequestration occurred, I think we would sustain cuts that would be felt,” he warned. “We’re going to find out what it means.”

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