President Obama’s budget proposal to eliminate roughly 4,000 civilian employees in the Department of Defense is likely to raise a storm of protest from federal workers and their allies on Capitol Hill.
But the plan outlined in Obama’s 2016 budget blue print unveiled on Monday would barely put a dent in a civilian workforce that has grown by nearly seven percent since 2009 and now totals nearly 800,000 men and women.
Obama’s new budget proposal would breach the Pentagon’s legal spending caps by $35 billion and provide for a total of $585 billion of defense spending in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
The budget plan offers the president’s vision for overhauling the military and responding to new terrorist threats from abroad -- one that includes a continued downsizing of the military services from peak levels in the wake of the 9-11 attacks.
Yet even as the military has downsized the Army, Air Force, Marines and Navy, the number of civilian workers at the Pentagon and throughout Defense Department operations across the country has risen substantially.
During the past five years, while the Pentagon’s civilian workforce has grown by about 7 percent, active-duty military personnel has been cut by roughly 8 percent, according to an analysis by MacKenzie Eaglen, a defense specialist for the America Enterprise Institute.
Eaglen notes that at the same time the civilian workforce has grown, dozens of military-equipment and weapons programs have been canceled, including a new Navy cruiser, the F-22 generation fighter jet, missile defense and the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle.
Eaglen said in an interview today that there is a huge disconnect between the military cutting U.S. fighting forces and “chipping away at combat power” on the one hand while allowing a civilian workforce meant to provide support to the military continue to grow out of control.
“Just about everything is coming down in defense spending, and this [civilian employment] is the only area of spending that is guaranteed to grow each year,” she said. “And it takes away even more from other priorities through reduced purchasing power in defense. It’s like a double whammy.”
Eaglen and other critics contend that the ratio of military to civilian personnel is out of whack, skewed toward support versus what the Pentagon calls “tip of the spear” forces that enable the U.S. to shape world events.
Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said today that a net total reduction of 3,500 to 4,000 civilians from headquarters staff “is pretty small – and I don’t think it’s a major shift.”
“If anything, it’s surprising they aren’t pursuing more reductions in the civilian work force,” he said.
Moreover, efforts to significantly downsize the civilian work force through RIFs or reductions in force are not easy, because of complicated and time-consuming federal personnel rules that permit affected employees to challenge adverse actions against them. Nor has the administration had much luck in winning approval from Congress for more base closures that would have the effect of reducing the civilian workforce as well as the military.
The president’s new budget request includes $178.9 billion for military pay and benefit costs next year, an increase of $2.6 billion from fiscal 2015. That accounts for 33.5 percent of the overall DOD budget request.
However, while the request for military pay and benefits is on the rise, it is down 2 percent overall from 2015, and includes cuts of $1.7 billion to healthcare benefits, housing allowances and subsidies to military grocery stores, according to an analysis by The Hill.
The Pentagon civilian workforce would face net reductions of roughly 4,170 – largely due to the end of the Afghanistan War and the drawdown of troops in the Middle East, while about 10,180 active duty and reserve personnel would be cut.
According to Harrison, the military at most could save about $120,000 a year for every reduction in the civilian workforce – or roughly $400 million a year under the president’s approach.
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