President Obama signed a last-minute bill Monday night, approved by the House and Senate, to ensure that even during a government shutdown members of the military would still be paid. But that bill came too late to stave off the hurried preparations that occurred on every military base in America on Monday as everyone from top leaders to junior soldiers got ready for the impact. Nor did the bill make clear exactly how many DoD civilians and contractors with jobs related to the military would be protected. According to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, pay will continue for civilians with jobs that “are providing support to members of the armed forces.” But support is a broad term and may not cover many of the ancillary functions that are essential to day-to-day activities and quality of life within the military, but are not deemed essential for conducting critical operations.
With all the uncertainty, here’s a bit of perspective on how the shutdown looked to members of the armed services and the civilians whose livelihood is tied to the military.
There are three things people in the military did yesterday in anticipation of government the shutdown.
Budgeters bought enough supplies—from printer cartridges to bullets—in a hasty end-of-year spending spree so the “essentials” could do their jobs today as the government shut down. But we do that every year.
Leaders were in never-ending meetings about how to still accomplish their missions even with minimal manning and no guarantee of filling equipment shortfalls.
Everybody else held their post, worrying if their paychecks would come on time after the government shuts down. Uniformed troops know they will get paid, but will the systems and people be in place to pay them on time? Many reservists prepping their uniforms Monday expecting to be on orders Tuesday were told Monday night not to show up.
All three distractions could have been averted had Congress passed a budget. Rest assured though, if called, aircraft would launch, the carrier group would sail, and brigades would deploy. Despite the political crisis, the Defense Department will not hurt America’s national security by compromising readiness. What may be compromised are the multitude of supporting tasks that sustain the military’s ability to conduct its core mission. Many of those jobs, ranging from administration to maintenance, are performed by DoD civilians and contractors who may not be protected by the president’s 11th-hour bill continuing soldiers’ pay.
An exclamation point on this claim was the Pentagon comptroller’s statement to reporters this week about a potential strike against Syria. “If … the president were to authorize some action against Syria,” Robert Hale said, “it would be a military operation approved by the secretary, and so it would be an excepted activity and, yes, we could go forward with it.”
Given that the critical missions will go on, it may seem that the shutdown doesn’t mean much for the military. Nothing is further from the truth.
The first-order consequences of this uncertain budget drill have been rehearsed for years. Even when Congress has passed a continuing resolution, everybody in the Pentagon down to the remote Tooele Army Depot in Utah has stocked up on enough office supplies to sustain operations. It’s akin to squirrels hoarding nuts for the winter.
Besides ensuring there’s enough paper to at least print out operations orders, concerns regarding the shutdown’s potential effects on readiness loom. But to a wrench-turner on a flight line, or grunt in the field, it mostly translates to a slower tempo and anxiety about essential services not related to their paychecks. Midlevel leaders will creatively mitigate effects on their own units, but will have to waste energy addressing the most menial tasks, like will the trash be picked up tomorrow?
The brass drew a fat red line on their priorities immediately dropping nonessentials from the to-do list—because there’s nobody to do the work. Anything that could be delayed is now delayed. Contracts not signed yesterday likely won’t be today, so that leaky roof on the chow hall is going to leak for a few more months.
Those who had to stay on the job are staring at their computers and Rolodexes trying to figure out whom to call for support because their “go-to guy” for [fill in the blank] is furloughed. One general officer said in an email to his staff, “Expect there may be some discovery learning for us starting tomorrow.”
The uncertainty of these actions is distracting and driving everything—every action—from the top down. Even vendors in the base food court are shuffling their feet wondering how to maintain business.
In the midst of such angst, those left to keep the doors cracked open are also distracted by personal uncertainty. The Marine corporal deployed to Afghanistan, making $2,193.90 a month, is worried about his family back home. His kids rely on food stamps, but that program was cut during shutdown. He will try to maintain focus in a combat zone. But he will be distracted and uncertain.
The Army civilian GS-9 making $47,448 a year at Fort Polk, La., is now wondering how she will pay the mortgage next month. She was already behind in her bills, trying to catch up after having been furloughed for six days this summer. She can’t afford this furlough, too. That Army civilian was in charge of laundry services on base. If she stops doing that job, it means someone else has to, and so the effects ripple out.
Here’s the bottom line: the uncertainty is dangerous. Given the complex tasks they are asked to execute every day, America cannot afford to have their focus be anything less than 100 percent.
Uncertainty about the situation has already disrupted operations, threatened the livelihood of troops and their families, and hijacked the focus of everybody from the secretary of Defense down to the route clearance sergeant in Afghanistan. Even with pay assured for military service members, the impact is still being felt.
David Small is a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council.