The government shutdown that began at 12:01am on Tuesday should be used as an object lesson for those who understand the necessity of reducing unnecessary and excessive costs of the federal government. As part of the shutdown process, non-essential workers are being directed to remain at home. The percentage of the total workforce on (temporary) unpaid leave varies widely among cabinet departments and agencies. For example, in the Department of Veterans Affairs, 95 percent of the workforce has been directed to report for work while at the Housing and Urban Development Department 96 percent of the workforce has been deemed non–essential. Air traffic controllers, customs and border patrol personnel, FBI agents and the like are all considered essential and will remain on the job.
It is reported that the Defense Department will furlough approximately half its civilian employees, roughly 400,000, beginning today. This is by far the largest group of federal employees to be put on leave. In addition, an as yet undefined number of defense contractors, many doing jobs that are similar in nature to those performed by government employees, will be temporarily laid off.
The fact that nearly half a million civilians in the Pentagon are considered non-essential is one indicator that this is a place to begin cutting defense overhead expenses. Numerous studies of ways of reducing unnecessary defense spending, including most recently one by the Stimson Center, have identified the bloated size of the civilian workforce as a place to start cutting costs. If half the Department of Defense’s (DoD) workforce can safely be put on temporary leave, it stands to reason that a significant fraction of that half could be permanently eliminated.
This does not mean that these workers haven’t been performing their jobs well. It does mean that in an austere budget environment any position that is not considered essential to national defense should be considered a candidate for elimination.
What say we begin the process of reducing excess DoD overhead by eliminating 25 percent of the 50 percent of the total civilian workforce in the Pentagon that didn’t show up for work today? This may seem like a large number but it is actually a smaller fraction of total civilian employment at the Pentagon than the 20 percent of headquarters staff including military personnel that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel proposes to cut from DoD. Reducing civilian manpower by 100,000 is a good first step and will save tens of billions of dollars. Add to that figure some of the tens of thousands of uniform personnel doing jobs that could be performed by civilians (government employees or contractors) and the savings would go a long way to mitigating the impact of sequestration on military operations and procurement.
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