Budget

Congress Finds a Way Around Federal Furloughs


U.S. Park Police officers at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington

Photograph by Eva Russo for The Washington Post via Getty Images

U.S. Park Police officers at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington

When the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced in April that 12,000 employees would have to take four days off without pay this year, Republican Representative Frank Wolf made sure that wasn’t going to happen. The agency that runs the National Weather Service needed to shave $17.5 million from its budget to comply with the across-the-board federal spending cuts known as sequestration. Wolf, whose Virginia district is home to many federal workers, thought it was crazy to sideline storm-tracking meteorologists at the start of what looked to be a devastating tornado season. “Your people are your most valuable resource,” he says. “I told them, ‘Find the money. And if you can’t find the money, I’ll tell you where to find it.’ ”

They found the money. Just before midnight on June 7—a week after tornadoes ravaged Oklahoma—NOAA chief Kathryn Sullivan e-mailed employees to say there’d be no furloughs. The agency told Congress it would pay employees by delaying construction of weather-monitoring ships and taking funds from programs to improve hurricane forecasting.

NOAA is one of more than a dozen federal agencies that have used creative accounting to keep workers on the job despite steep budget cuts. Early this year, as the sequester was about to take effect, the heads of 19 federal departments warned Congress that furloughs would mean a shortage of food inspectors, park rangers, public defenders, and prison guards. All of those workers have been spared, and the wave of short-term staff reductions that threatened to cripple Washington didn’t come. Only seven agencies—including the Department of Defense, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Department of Labor—are still requiring workers to take unpaid days off, and most of those departments have managed to come up with enough money to greatly reduce the number of temporary layoffs. The Pentagon anticipated that 650,000 civilian contractors would be required to take 22 unpaid days, saving $5 billion. It halved the number of days by freezing hiring, delaying the repair of noncritical equipment, and canceling some training for troops and fighter pilots.

Federal agencies aren’t usually allowed to take funds that Congress budgets for one thing and use them to pay for something else. But since the sequester took effect, cabinet heads have asked the congressional committees that oversee them for permission to move money around to protect payrolls. NOAA got the go-ahead from the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science—which Wolf heads. On March 19, Congress let Attorney General Eric Holder dip into $150 million of unspent Department of Justice funds to prevent furloughs of 34,756 federal prison guards. On April 24, Holder went back to Capitol Hill for more money to keep FBI agents from being sent home. Congress gave him permission to take $300 million slated for election monitors, detention facilities for prisoners awaiting trial, and continuing education for Justice lawyers. Assistant Attorney General for Administration Lee Lofthus says the department had no choice but to drain money from valuable programs to pay for vital employees. “If your child needs an operation, you get them the operation,” he says. “You don’t fix the house and car—no matter how badly they need work.”

Twice this year, Congress has also passed bills to let agencies shift money to keep employees at work. In May, after the Federal Aviation Administration furloughed about 16,500 air traffic controllers, resulting in at least 7,000 flight delays, lawmakers approved an emergency measure allowing the agency to pay the controllers with $253 million intended to upgrade airports. To keep meat inspectors on the job, Congress let the Department of Agriculture move $55 million from a school grant fund.

By October, when the fiscal year ends, as many as 775,000 employees across the federal government may be forced to stay home without pay for at least five days. That’s a lot, but far fewer than the dire layoffs the government once predicted. “This year there was money in the salad bowls, money in the sugar bowls,” Wolf says. “You could find the money to do this.”

That likely won’t be the case next year. If Congress doesn’t end the sequester, agencies will have a harder time finding untapped pockets of cash to forestall governmentwide furloughs. “Once we spend that money, it doesn’t come back,” Lofthus says. “It’s gone.”

The bottom line: To avert furloughs, federal agencies shifted hundreds of millions of dollars from government programs to pay workers.

With Robert Levinson
Dwoskin is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in Washington. Follow her on Twitter: @lizzadwoskin.

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