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Defense Civilians Could Go Back to Work

pentagon-metro

The law passed Monday night to ensure military personnel get paid during the government shutdown may allow DoD civilians to go back to work, too.

Stars and Stripes (“White House, DOD looking at using military pay law to end furloughs“):

The Pentagon and the White House are weighing whether a new law that ensures military members as well as some Defense Department civilians keep getting paid during the government shutdown could be used to bring furloughed civilians back to work.

Federal legislators who passed the law, meanwhile, say the Pentagon has the authority now to end the DOD civilian furloughs.

On Tuesday, as hundreds of thousands of DOD employees went on furlough, Pentagon lawyers sent a legal brief to the White House Office of Management and Budget that a defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said had “recommended maximum flexibility” in interpreting the “Pay Our Military Act.”

The act, signed into law late Monday, authorizes paychecks for military members as well as DOD civilians who Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel determines “are providing support to members of the Armed Forces.”

The questions of how broadly “providing support” could be interpreted and how many of an estimated 400,000 furloughed civilians might return to work were being ironed out Wednesday as executive branch attorneys mulled the legal requirements of a government shutdown brought on by a deadlocked Congress’ inability to pass by midnight Monday a measure to fund federal operations.

In a letter sent Tuesday to Hagel, Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services committee, told Hagel that DOD civilians who are currently sitting at home are actually authorized to work by the new law.

“I believe the legislation provides you broad latitude and I encourage you to use it,” McKeon wrote. “The text does not limit the provision of pay to civilians who were previously categorized by the Administration as ‘excepted’ or ‘essential’ … Therefore, I strongly encourage you to use the authority Congress has given you to keep national security running, rather than keeping defense civilians at home when they are authorized to work.”

In another letter sent Monday to Hagel, Rep. Michael R. Turner, R-Ohio, said all furloughed employees at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in his district provide support for the military, as specified in the new law, and thus should be allowed to work.

“The law is clear and provides the department as well as the United States Coast Guard with authority to immediately call its civilian employees back to work,” Turner wrote. The Coast Guard falls under the Department of Homeland Security.

Interestingly, House Republican leaders, including the Speaker, have been saying this all along.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, issued a statement linking to McKeon’s letter, criticizing the Pentagon for “narrowly” interpreting the law so far “against congressional intent.” The headline of Boehner’s statement is “Despite Signing Pay Our Military Act, White House Using DoD Workers to Play Political Games.”

As one of those furloughed civilians, I’d be happy to go back to work sooner rather than later. Not only is getting a paycheck nice but it’s a career, not a job; studying and writing about national security policy is what I do, not just a means of paying the mortgage.

That said, I’m not crazy about the idea of keeping the government shut down while exempting piecemeal those employees doing jobs that people suddenly discover are actually pretty important.  World War II vets can’t go see their memorial? Okay, let’s fund that. Kids with cancer can’t get treatment? Okay, let’s fund that. We shouldn’t fund the government based on which jobs can get the public’s attention soonest.

Some very important jobs operate under the public radar. Some provide crucial behind-the-scenes support to more visible agencies.  Some do vital work whose impact isn’t felt for years or even decades but need to be done now to prevent very bad things happening then. Many of them are far more important to the country than museums, parks, and service academy football games.

Beyond that, while inartfully phrased, Harry Reid’s stance that the minority party should not get to “pick and choose what part of government’s going to be funded” is basically right.

Are there whole agencies and departments whose existence would no longer withstand rational scrutiny? Probably. Are there government workers who are lazy and worthless? Certainly. The taxpayer shouldn’t have to give up their hard-earned income to pay for them. But those decisions ought to be made through a clear-eyed review process, not under the gun of a needless shutdown of the whole system. Much less on the basis of which ones are best at getting the attention of the news media.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Much less on the basis of which ones are best at getting the attention of the news media.

    This.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  2. Andy says:

    Are there any Democrats who share the GoP’s interpretation that this law provides wide latitude?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  3. Jeremy R says:

    I followed that link to Bohner’s site and this last line from the embedded McKeon letter is just amazing:

    I know you would agree with me that this is no time to use national security or our national security workforce as a political pawn.

    Isn’t this exactly what the GOP has done by shutting down all these agencies and workforces, that have absolutely nothing to do with the Affordable Care Act, in order to gain the leverage to demand unilateral concessions on that law?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  4. James Joyner says:

    @Jeremy R: Well, in fairness to McKeon, your emphasis changes his meaning. He thinks national security and federal workers in that business are more important than other aspects of the government and workers in those agencies. So, he’s willing to use those less important-to-him workers as pawns.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  5. Scott says:

    Couldn’t agree more. However, there is a lot of DoD that does not, in the short term at least, impact immediately national security. Most of Wright-Patterson AFB, referenced above, for example, is involved in the weapon system acquisition business and staff work. A contract not signed for a couple of weeks will not impact much at all. Of course it is in a Republican’s district and therefore the most important mission in the AF.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  6. DC Loser says:

    Notice that Wright-Patt is right next door to Boehner’s district in Springfield, OH. Many of his constituents suck on Uncle Sam’s teat. I’d be interested to know how many angry phone calls he’s getting from furloughed feds and contractors.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  7. JKB says:

    Harry Reid’s stance that the minority party should not get to…

    Except that the minority party is not doing anything. They Senate Republicans do not control what is happening in the Senate. The House Republicans are, however, the majority party in the equal body of the equal branch of government. Moreover, all appropriations must originate in the House. So in reality, the House, with Republican majority, gets to define how the government is funded. That they must then negotiate with the Senate and President to pass the legislation is how it was set up.

    Sure it works a bit more congenially when it works but when the Senate and the President refuse to negotiate at all and the House refuses to wholly concede, we get down to the fundamentals of how things work.

    Wishing the United States has a parliamentary system doesn’t make it so.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  8. James Joyner says:

    @JKB: But House Republicans refused for months to have a conference committee on the budget. And they’re holding continued funding of the government up by demanding an absurdity that the Democrats can’t possibly be expected to go along with.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  9. Scott F. says:

    @James Joyner:

    He thinks national security and federal workers in that business are more important than other aspects of the government and workers in those agencies.

    Thus putting a lie to the principled “limited government” stance the conservatives constantly and proudly claim. As it has always been, it’s not less government, it’s just government for my special interests.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  10. Scott F. says:

    @James Joyner:

    Thank you, James. This is not repeated enough.

    Republicans are on the record that their refusal to have a conference committee on the 2014 budget was so they could maintain the debt ceiling vote as leverage in a crisis to get cuts they couldn’t get through regular order. Extortion has been the plan all along.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  11. James Joyner says:

    @Scott F.: Well, no. A longstanding principle of modern conservatism—if not plain old conservatism going back to Machiavelli and Burke—is that the state’s first duty is providing security. The basic Tea Party position is that the federal government should basically be in the business of providing national defense, enforcement of criminal and civil matters than couldn’t be handled by the states, and a court system.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  12. DC Loser says:

    @James,

    You obviously haven’t been following the same Tea Party as I have. Where are all these laws they are pushing for and passing about abortion, same sex marriage, and voter ID’s been coming from?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  13. James Joyner says:

    @DC Loser: They’re all pretty standard conservative positions going back decades. Hell, President Obama publicly opposed same-sex marriage as recently as two years ago. And, while I think it’s wrongheaded, voter ID is a pretty standard security issue: we have to control our borders and ensure only citizens vote in our elections. I agree with those principles, but think voter ID is ineffective in dealing with them while making it harder for poor and elderly citizens to vote.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  14. DC Loser says:

    My beef is that the TP painted themselves as a fiscal conservative party, against taxes of all kinds. They originally said they weren’t a social issue party, which is a lie. Once in power, that’s all they care about.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  15. Scott F. says:

    @James Joyner:

    One can hold the opinion that defense is the core legitimate function of a government. One can also believe that a defense budget larger than the next 10 countries combined should never be cut back and even needs to be increased if the country’s global interests are to be secured.

    Respectfully, one cannot believe both those things and simultaneously stand for “limiting” government because we are Taxed Enough Already. At least one can’t while still maintaining any credibility.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  16. C Williams says:

    @James Joyner: I would agree with you, except that the President (AKA most of the Executive Branch) has decided to postpone the Business mandate. I am pretty sure the ACA didn’t give the President Legislative powers to postpone or delay the law as he sees fit.
    If the Democrats want a clean CR than the Republicans should give it to them. Cleanly fund the government and state that the ENTIRE ACA must be implemented on time, including the Business mandate, and see how far that goes.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  17. DC Loser says:

    Interesting article about Tea Party views of Obama.

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-10-04/why-republicans-shut-down-the-government.html

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  18. Rob in CT says:

    Beyond that, while inartfully phrased, Harry Reid’s stance that the minority party should not get to “pick and choose what part of government’s going to be funded” is basically right.

    I’m not even sure that’s inartful. Seems bang-on to me.

    So in reality, the House, with Republican majority, gets to define how the government is funded. That they must then negotiate with the Senate and President to pass the legislation is how it was set up.

    Sure it works a bit more congenially when it works but when the Senate and the President refuse to negotiate at all

    As James pointed out, this is just false. I’m pretty sure you’re not lying deliberately, but rather passing on lies you believe. The Democrats have been seeking negotation over appropriates all damn year long, and the GOP has refused. Some of them (Paul Ryan) have admitted that they have refused because they wanted the government shutdown and debt ceiling as hostages.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  19. Chris says:

    I’m looking for a lawyer to file paperwork to sue DOD and the secretary TODAY and force our dept to be covered…OUR mission statement and vision statement have the words “we support the warfighter” in the strategic plan….help us get back to work contact me….

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