An Officer and a Babysitter: Two Personal Stories About the Sequester

By Joe Digiammo  MAR 01, 2013 1:35 PM

Our leaders -- and by extension, the media outlets they feed -- may be playing a game of semantics with the general public.

 


In the 1982 classic An Officer and a Gentleman, we meet a US Navy aviation officer candidate (Richard Gere) who comes into conflict with the Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant (Louis Gossett Jr.) who trains him (great fight). According to Wikipedia, the title of the movie is derived from a saying from the British Royal Navy -- and subsequently from the US Uniform Code of Military Justice -- regarding being charged with "conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman" (circa 1860).

Well, according to the two sources I spoke with last night, the media’s portrayal of sequestration, fed by information from our fearless leaders in Washington, may be conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman. Heck, we saw the Sean Hannity rant the other night, and Obama’s “fire and brimstone” rhetoric to workers in Virginia, a state that will be heavily hit by looming cuts. The president spoke with fire and passion reminiscent of Irwin M. Fletcher (Chevy Chase) posing as a guest healer in the ministry of Jimmy Lee Farnsworth (played by R. Lee Ermey, a real gunnery sarge) in Fletch Lives (1989).
 
To be fair, yes -- these cuts are real. The headlines read horribly ($1.1 trillion over 10 years); as I type, we’re on the precipice of $85 billion in cuts taking effect at the stroke of midnight tonight.

However, here’s where our leaders -- and by extension, the media outlets they feed -- may be overstating things, and for that matter, playing a game of semantics with the general American public. Notice that there’s not exactly a heck of a lot of urgency displayed this week in Washington? Compare this to the scene pre-fiscal cliff when Johnny Boehner was hurling f-bombs Hank Reid‘s way.

With the sequester, the lack of urgency -- and for that matter, the lack of an 11th hour compromise, which many following with a vested interest predicted would happen -- speaks to an important distinction, illustrated by the following two points:
 
1. The process of cuts is gradual -- i.e., most “furloughs” would not even kick in until early April in the case of the Department of Defense, and not until after tax season (maybe June) in the case of an institution like the vaunted IRS. Intuitively, this tells me that our leaders know they have time to compromise to mitigate some of the trickle-down effects to the economy. In the case of the fiscal cliff, the tax hikes would in fact have been immediate, kicking in January 1.

2.  The semantics involved here are different. Webster’s defines "furlough" first as a noun: “A temporary leave of absence from military duty," and secondly as a verb: "Dismiss, usually for economic reasons.”  After listening to the media, the average American is led to believe, using CNN as a proxy, 700,000 to 800,000 people will, in the vernacular, immediately be affected in accordance with these literal definitions.


Here's what my two sources had to say:
 
The Officer
 
The officer I spoke to in this case is retired USAF Lt. Col. Steve Wallingford who now works as a government contractor and engineer for Windmill International. Windmill is a private Massachusetts-based firm that, among other things, provides logistical support for AWAC systems (missile defense) deployed by the US government and NATO. The firm is a good representation of an entity that may be affected by sequestration cuts given that fact that virtually all of its contracts are either with NATO and the US government and its allies; additionally, the firm employs a cross section of civil service employees (most affected), US military officers, and contractors like Lt. Col. Wallingford.

In our conversation, Steve began by emphasizing that in his opinion, our leaders in DC are overemphasizing how immediately the cuts will occur, and just how severe they may become. Steve sees how a layperson would watch a CNN report or a similar report on any other outlet, and rationally assume that there could be 700,000 to 800,000 government-related employees "out of work." In essence, we know that the word “furlough,” with regards to the Department of Defense, translates to one day per week of work, or essentially a 20% pay cut.  Now, back to semantics and timing relative to the lack of urgency: I asked Steve whether there has been specific mention at Windmill of when these furloughs were to kick in, and he said he cannot recall a conversation or an email pointing to a specific timeline. Again, we can then obviously conclude that, as of tomorrow, potentially affected civil service employees will not be furloughed. 
 
Moreover, Steve was quick to point out that some of the pending cuts, although not ideal, may be both warranted and beneficial despite the personal and/or economic pain they may cause, and given the history of US budget trajectories. Steve contends that if more people delved a bit deeper, and looked beyond the sensational reports coming from the media, they just may see that stopping the growth of the US budget may be beneficial.  Remember that the $85 billion in cuts to kick in is incremental to last year’s budget. He then went a bit Socratic on me and posed: “Does the current military situation in the US warrant an additional $85 billion this year, given the fact we’re almost completely out of Iraq and are slated to have all boots off the proverbial ground in Afghanistan in 22 months?” 

He then pointed to “peace dividend” examples of how defense budgets were drawn down in 1970s post -Vietnam and then again at the end of the Cold War in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall. So Lt. Col. Steve (using that reference because Lt. Dan from Forrest Gump is one of my all -time favorites) contends that it’s fair to assume that the US, with regards to defense spending, should be working toward another down cycle post 9/11. He again emphasized that sequestration does not reduce the budget, but merely slows the rate of growth.  I only wish I could impart this “peace dividend” concept re: budgets in my house, with my son post age 8 and my daughter post age 11. 
 
Another scare tactic that Steve found to be sensationalized was the contention that with hits to agencies like the FAA, there would be planes “falling out of the sky.” In fact, as a former aviator in the Air Force and NATO, he found this almost laughable. Yes, there will in fact potentially be fewer TSA officials and air traffic controllers. But the government, in his opinion, will cut the excess, not compromise safety standards. He estimates 5-6% of all airports will be affected, and most cuts will be at places (no offense; random example) like Lawrence Municipal Airport in Massachusetts, where, as he put it, you could watch one plane take off, go to work, and not miss another. Cuts will most likely not affect places like New York's JFK Airport.  At the larger airports, the most travelers may have to contend with will be longer lines at security.  At places like Lawrence Municipal Airport, things like 24/7 air traffic control may be cut back, and this is not a bad thing because it’s simply not needed.
 
Steve then talked about the political implications here. Our leaders on the right (to generalize) were elected in November with a mandate to cut costs, and reduce government spending. Our leaders on the left were given a mandate to take it to the 1%!  Not a good cocktail?

Think about it intuitively, it’s almost paradoxical: The Republicans, typically pro-defense, know that Obama is not going to budge on entitlement programs -- and the right is not going to sign up for more tax increases without spending cuts. So, in essence, this is what the right is left with. Again, as Lt. Col. Steve said, “Not ideal.” 

Yes, these cuts are real, and yes, there will be a trickle-down effect. But the cuts are not immediate and are instead more gradual in nature. As far as government contracts go, again: Steve points out that to his knowledge, there are no specific contracts on the books or pending that have been scaled back or cut at his company. Moreover, he aptly pointed out that in some cases, the “penalties” that may be associated with cutting a contract may be more severe than the cost of cancelling a particular contract. I asked him for a specific example and he said, “I could give you one, but if I did, I would then have to kill you with this pen.” (Kidding, but you get the point.)

The Babysitter

The term "babysitter" in this case does a disservice to the person described, whom we love dearly, and who has been watching my family’s children for the better part of eight years. She also happens to be an essential employee of the IRS where she has worked for the last five years upon graduating from Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts. Deductive reasoning here would allow one to conclude she still spends time with our children out of love. According to her, word of the pending effects of sequestration at the IRS was first promulgated in January of this year.

Ironically, there was a meeting at the IRS yesterday during which local supervisors informed employees that there may in fact be a “short-term furlough” of cuts of one day per pay period, or one day every two weeks. These furloughs would not occur until after tax season. When pressed for specifics, the supervisor said that could mean “the summer.”  There was no mention of layoffs, and it was emphasized that the IRS was in far better shape than some other government entities because of measures that have been ongoing during the last several years, including rent reductions via employees working remotely, and pay/hiring freezes that essentially have been in effect since 2010.
 
Our babysitter then pointed to an example of a budget impasse five years ago: Employees were informed on a Thursday that there was a “freeze,” and that they were not to report to work on Friday.  This was then vetted through the union (in this case, the NTEU), and subsequently, all employees returned on Monday and were paid for the "day off.” It was emphasized again today that any furloughs or cuts would again have to be vetted through the union. Wowser?! I then asked our friend how she felt about the looming furloughs and if she felt they are warranted. She humbly said, “I think some prudent cost cutting could be beneficial, and I do not mind sacrificing one day per pay period if that’s what it takes." Heck, we would sure love to have her those days!
 
She provided us with the following information on sequestration that was sent to her:
 
MEMORANDUM FOR ALL IRS EMPLOYEES
 
FROM: Steven T. Miller /s/ 
Acting Commissioner
 
SUBJECT: Information on potential sequestration on March 1
 
This Friday, March 1, marks the effective date of across-the-board spending cuts for nearly all federal agencies, also known as sequestration. Should sequestration occur, we will still be able to operate, but our overall funding for the remainder of the fiscal year will be reduced. Therefore, it is essential that we prepare for whatever events may unfold and continue to look for opportunities to reduce expenses so we can minimize the impact on IRS’ mission to serve the American public and the impact on your lives as well.
 
If sequestration occurs, we will continue to operate under a hiring freeze, reduce funding for grants and other expenditures, and cut costs in areas such as travel, training, facilities, and supplies. In addition, we will need to review contract spending to ensure only the most critical and mandatory requirements are fully funded.

Despite our current and planned efforts to cut expenses, the reality is that our greatest expense, by far, is employee pay. As a result, if sequestration occurs and our budget is reduced for the remainder of the fiscal year, it appears that a number of furlough days will be necessary given the size of the anticipated budget cut to the IRS. Let me be clear: We know that asking you to take even one furlough day is difficult. That’s why we’ve spent so much time and energy trying to minimize the impact on our employees as much as possible while carrying out our mission. We will continue to look for cost savings in the coming weeks and months.
 
At this point, we expect that every one of us would take no more than one furlough day per pay period, beginning sometime in the summer, after the filing season ends, and possibly through the remainder of the fiscal year, for a total of between five to seven furlough days. We will provide you with at least 30 days’ notice prior to starting furlough. We will also engage with NTEU as appropriate to ensure that any necessary furloughs are applied in a fair and appropriate manner and consistent with our collective bargaining agreements. If you have questions on this issue, we encourage you to go to the Office of Personnel Management website, which has helpful information and answers to frequently asked questions regarding furloughs.

We will provide more details regarding our sequestration contingency plans as details become available. We recognize how distracting and difficult this news may be, but we know that you and your colleagues are dedicated public servants who will continue to deliver for the nation’s taxpayers. Thank you for your patience, your diligence and all that you do.
 
A message from the NTEU:

Dear NTEU Member:
 
As sequestration goes into effect tomorrow, federal employees face uncharted waters. I want to assure you that NTEU is by your side fighting for an end to sequestration, working for a more sensible approach to deficit reduction, and negotiating with agencies on ways to mitigate the impact on the federal workforce.

The implementation of the sequester follows two Senate votes today on sequestration.

NTEU supported one of those bills, S. 388, that would have stopped sequestration and replaced it with a mix of revenue and spending cuts that did not have a negative impact on the federal workforce. Unfortunately, that legislation failed to get the needed 60 votes for Senate passage.
 
NTEU opposed a second proposal that would have kept the sequestration cuts in place, but provided the president with flexibility in implementing them. That bill also failed to get the necessary 60 votes for passage.

Across the Capitol, the House of Representatives took no action to prevent sequestration despite its dire consequences.

NTEU has been tirelessly at work in an effort to stop these devastating across-the-board cuts from going into effect. This week, as sequestration was looming, nearly 400 NTEU leaders came to Washington, DC, to urge their elected representatives and senators to act to stop sequestration. They made their case in hundreds of congressional offices over three days explaining to members of Congress the damaging impact of sequestration on the ability of agencies to meet their missions and the personal impact on employees.

In a survey of NTEU members, you revealed grave concerns about making ends meet, going further into debt, delaying medical treatment, facing difficulty in paying for child care, school tuition and other educational expenses following a 27-month pay freeze and the specter of unpaid furlough days. We released the results of the survey to the media this week to educate the public about the personal impact of sequestration on federal employees.

There is no doubt that sequestration has actual consequences for agencies, employees and the American public. Despite tomorrow’s implementation of sequestration, NTEU’s work in fighting this extraordinarily bad public policy is not done.

Not only will we continue our work on Capitol Hill, urging Congress to end the sequester as quickly as possible, we also will continue our work with federal agencies. We are engaged in discussions at the 31 agencies where we represent employees seeking ways to mitigate the impact of any cuts on employees. Sequestration differs from a government shutdown due to a lapse in appropriations in that the impact on employees is not immediate.
 
Each agency will have a sequestration plan to meet the requirement of cuts of 5% of the annual budget or 9% of the remaining FY 2013 budget. The sequester prevents agencies from exercising discretion to ensure that the highest priority programs take the least amount of cuts.

While unpaid furloughs are under consideration, and some employees have heard directly from agencies regarding the likelihood of furloughs, I want to remind you that agencies must provide 30 days' notice to employees before implementing furloughs and NTEU has the right to bargain the impact and implementation. NTEU will seek to mitigate the impact of furloughs to the greatest extent possible. The Office of Personnel Management has additional information on administrative furloughs that you may find useful.

This is a very challenging time for federal employees. NTEU is committed to providing you with the information you need as we move forward. For more information visit the NTEU website.

Colleen M. Kelley
NTEU National President
 

Conclusively, the purpose here is not to diminish the potential impact of sequestration, but rather to illustrate that once again, the media and our leaders are maybe not conveying to us the true scope, scale, and rationale of the situation. We have heard a lot of -- as Lt. Col. Steve put it -- “hellfire and doomsday.” However, as evidenced by the seeming lack of urgency in Washington this week -- and lack of an 11th hour compromise --  we need to not be consumed and see that sequestration is gradual, and that there is time for our leaders to work towards a compromise. 

We can also get some firsthand perspective when we consider that, from both historical and pragmatic viewpoints, although many lives are affected, some prudent cost cutting may be both warranted and beneficial for the longer term. As far as the markets, well, we know that markets have a tendency to show remarkable efficiency, and we’re nearing all-time highs on the major indexes in the face of the sequester. So far, investors are not panicking over this "crisis" and its potential impact on the performance of the Dow Jones (INDEXDJX:.DJI)and S&P 500 (INDEXSP:.INX). We know the major public defense contractors have braced for this, and in most cases (for example, Boeing (NYSE:BA)), they have budgeted pretty conservatively to compensate for defense cuts.

To this point, there are no lay-offs; there is just the potential of reduction in work, or pay cuts -- a furlough, the word behind this game of semantics. Yes, we may have fewer Gunnery Sergeants like Louis Gossett Jr. around, but just maybe our political leaders and media outlets should realize that their methods of portraying the situation may be conduct unbecoming of an officer... and a babysitter.

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