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Federal workers oppose proposed Pentagon civilian workforce cut

Republican proposal would trim defense workforce through attrition

The American Federation of Government Employees represents about 250,000 Defense Department employees. Above, an aerial view of the Pentagon.
The American Federation of Government Employees represents about 250,000 Defense Department employees. Above, an aerial view of the Pentagon. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Corrected 9:55 a.m. | The federal workers union came out swinging Thursday against a Republican proposal to reduce the size of the Pentagon’s civilian workforce.

The American Federation of Government Employees, in a letter to congressional and administration leaders, criticized a plan to purportedly save $25 billion in each of the next five years by not filling a portion of the civilian positions at the Defense Department that are vacated each year.

“The problem with this approach is that actual waste is not being cut while cutting the civilian workforce will hollow out the Department’s capabilities, repeating mistakes from the past,” wrote Julie N. Tippens, director of the union’s legislative department, in the letter to defense appropriators and authorizers, congressional leadership, top officials at the Pentagon and the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.

The letter was obtained by CQ Roll Call and has not previously been reported.

“Spending more money on weapon systems or force structure capabilities without the appropriate civilian support for sustainment harms readiness and lethality, increases stress on the force, and incurs additional opportunity costs, detracting from modernization,” wrote Tippens, whose organization represents about 750,000 government employees, about 250,000 of whom work for the Defense Department.

Fiscal fight

The union’s new letter signals a bruising debate over the defense budget that is just getting started. House Republicans want to cut discretionary spending starting in fiscal 2024. But most of them want to spare the Pentagon budget, and a substantial portion of them want it to once again grow by 3 percent to 5 percent above the rate of inflation — if not more. The Ukraine war and China’s surveillance balloon could fuel more calls for higher military appropriations.

The fiscal 2023 omnibus spending law hiked defense appropriations by about 10 percent over the previous fiscal year.

Fiscal hawks will look for Pentagon savings just to save the government money. But the defense hawks may need to find savings at the Pentagon to make their forthcoming proposal for higher defense spending more palatable to the fiscal hawks.

In a telling sign of the debate within the GOP, The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that traditionally advocates high defense spending, is taking the unusual step in the next few weeks of compiling recommendations to save money at the Pentagon.

Rep. Mike D. Rogers, R-Ala., the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, says he’ll be looking to cut from the defense budget certain outmoded weapons as well as what he calls fat. Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., among others, has cited “woke” programs at the Pentagon as the place he would find savings.

Yet Congress frequently resists retirement of aging or antiquated or technically troubled planes and ships. Closing bases, meanwhile, has been a non-starter since 2005. And the notion that curbing so-called woke programs at the Pentagon can save significant sums does not seem realistic to most defense budget mavens. The amorphous term woke can characterize anything from efforts to promote diversity in the ranks to green energy initiatives to counterextremism training.

Savings through attrition

Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, has resurrected a long-standing proposal that at least has a dollar figure attached to it.

Calvert told Defense News earlier this month that he wants to save the military money by reducing the Pentagon’s civilian workforce. Calvert maintains that $125 billion could be saved over five years by simply not filling some positions that are vacated each year among the Defense Department’s more than 800,000 civilians. He said that if 5 percent is the attrition rate, filling only 3 percent of the openings would eventually accrue substantial savings.

Republicans have a long history of looking to trim what they call the Pentagon bureaucracy. Given Democrats’ traditional affiliation with unions and support for government workers broadly, the debate is automatically charged with partisanship.

The federal workers union says proposals to cut the ranks of Defense Department civilians by an arbitrary amount have failed in the past. These initiatives did not achieve appreciable savings, the union says, because the positions were instead filled largely by contractors or uniformed personnel. Using troops to do these jobs diverted them from work they could have been doing to prepare for battle or maintain equipment, the union argues.

With the armed services having trouble meeting their staffing goals due to below-par recruiting and retention results, some have argued that civilians should do more of the jobs now performed by troops, not less.

Calvert also told Defense News he wants to expand digitization of accounting systems and streamline the procurement process. These, too, are long-standing objectives of members of both parties that have proven difficult to achieve.

The photo caption was corrected to accurately reflect AFGE’s representation of Defense Department employees.

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