Department of Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told Congress Wednesday that civilian workforce reductions need to be part of the Pentagon’s strategy to deal with tightening budgets.
He said that, although parts of the workforce have grown out of necessity over the last decade, the Pentagon has not done enough to reduce overhead in its civilian ranks.
In his first round of Congressional hearings since becoming Defense secretary in early February, Carter told members that the budget DoD submitted last month is the bare minimum it needs to execute the current defense strategy. He vowed that, with or without sequestration, he would make sure that military members are trained, ready and have the right equipment.
“But everything else is on the table,” he said, “Including parts of our budget that have long been considered inviolate.”
Carter again urged Congress to let DoD follow through with the cost-saving measures it’s proposed, including base closures, the retirement of weapons systems and compensation changes. But he also agreed with members who said they were concerned about DoD’s level of spending on federal civilian personnel.
“I think we should go after excess wherever we can find it, and the civilian workforce has to be something we scrutinize and reduce,” he said.
Bill would cut workforce by 15 percent
Carter said he thinks DoD can make meaningful cutbacks in civilian personnel spending for several reasons.
“The civilian workforce grew by about 100,000 people in the decade since 9/11 and that wasn’t just a random increase. They were specifically targeted things that made a lot of sense, like cyber, our acquisition workforce and insourcing jobs that needed to be performed by government personnel instead of contractors,” he said. “My problem with that is that nobody looked at the existing civilian force and said, ‘Okay, we’re adding 100,000 people, but are there some jobs that can be eliminated at the same time?’ That didn’t happen because there was a lot of money throughout the last decade. Now we need to change that dynamic.”
Carter responded to questions from Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), who has introduced legislation that would require DoD to cut its civilian workforce by 15 percent over the next six years, cap its overall size at that level until 2026 and limit DoD’s senior executive service to 1,000 billets. It also would change DoD’s reduction-in-force procedures to give more weight to job performance than tenure.
“Since 2001, we’ve cut the active force by 4 percent and we’ve grown the civilian workforce by 15 percent. The ratio of civilian employees to active duty personnel is at its highest since World War II and the civilian workforce has grown every single year since 2003,” Calvert said. “Bringing that ratio down to its historic norm would save the department $82.5 billion over five years, which would help alleviate the impact of the [Budget Control Act]. But I cannot get a concession from anyone at DoD that we should have a proportional right-sizing of the civilian workforce.”
DoD’s written budget proposal for 2016 does include some modest civilian reductions. It calls for a 0.4 percent cut — or about 2,000 positions — across the military services and agencies compared to 2015. A 1.5 percent pay increase would outweigh any savings from those cuts, though. So under the current proposal, the Pentagon would spend $600 million more on civilians’ pay and benefits compared to 2015.
The budget, which was drawn up before Carter became secretary, noted that demand for some DoD jobs, like depot maintenance and some functions that are directly tied to the size of the active duty force, will decrease due to the drawdown in Afghanistan. But demand for others, in fields such as cyber, shipbuilding, disability evaluation and auditing, will rise.
Air Force’s aggressive approach
Carter urged members of Congress to keep in mind that the vast majority of DoD’s civilian workforce performs functions the department can’t do without.
“In Washington, we tend to think of civilians as people who sit at a desk at the Pentagon. But 85 percent of our civilians are outside the Washington metropolitan area; they’re repairing ships and airplanes and so forth. But where the headquarters staffs are concerned, we can make cuts and we have to make cuts,” he said.
The Defense Department already is in the midst of reducing staffs in its headquarters. In 2013, then-Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the military services and Defense agencies to find ways to reduce their personnel levels by 20 percent over five years. Soon after, Congress put a modified version of his directive into federal law.
The Air Force, for example, has taken a particularly aggressive approach to the headquarters reductions, ordering them to be finished in one year.
Deborah Lee James, the Air Force secretary, quibbled with Calvert’s claim of ongoing workforce growth in a hearing Friday. She said her service alone has cut its headcount by 24,000 civilians and 30,000 contractors since 2012.
“I think the downsizing on our military has gone far enough, and we actually need to upsize it a bit,” she said. “But we are constantly scrutinizing our civilian workforce. We are going to continue to do so.”
Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, said many of the service’s remaining 180,000 civilians work in functions that can’t be reduced without mission impacts.
“About 74,000 of them are mainstream Air Force mission area folks who are doing maintenance on flight lines, working in maintenance depots, running financial management shops,” Welsh said. “There’s another 55 percent who are covered by restrictions we can’t just push aside. Some of them are dual-status Air National Guard technicians. They’re covered by working capital fund requirements. They’re people we can’t just cut without action from Congress. But we’re going to continue to look at ways where we can limit this growth.”