Time for ‘Painful Choices’: Latest U.S. Cuts Hit Jobs, Programs

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WASHINGTON — The budget hits keep on coming — and managers across the U.S. government are making increasingly tough decisions to cut jobs, programs and plans for the future.

“We just went through our fiscal year ’13 budget, made decisions, and then had to go back and take a deeper cut,” NASA Chief Information Officer Linda Cureton said in a recent interview.

“Sometimes you cut so much, there’s not anything left to cut unless to the meat, to actually quit doing things, and I would say we’re at that point,” she said. “What are we going to stop doing? And those are very difficult questions to ask and answer.”

First, there were six-plus months of continuing resolutions that capped spending at last year’s levels. Then came the 2011 budget deal in April that cut spending by $38 billion. And then there was the debt ceiling deal that cuts $741 billion in discretionary spending over 10 years. And two weeks ago, the White House budget office instructed agencies to submit budget plans for 2013 that have options for 5 percent and 10 percent cuts below current levels.

The Defense Department has prepared two budget proposals for fiscal 2013: one with its original plans for the year, and a second with a down payment on $400 billion in cuts sought by President Barack Obama over the next 12 years. It is expected to complete a plan for cutting $400 billion in spending next month.

For the Air Force, for example, that will likely mean shrinking its aging fleet of aircraft, said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz in an Aug. 24 interview, in which he said the budget cuts will require “painful choices in some cases.”

“We will probably have to curtail our ambition here for some period of time,” Schwartz said. “That is just the nature of the current environment. It is preferable to have a smaller superb force than a larger hollow one.”

Schwartz also said a series of 12 so-called tiger teams he set up to find places to cut the budget are looking at “everything from space to precision attack [guided weapons systems] to [cargo airlift], and certainly logistics and support for the force.”

The cuts also recently prompted the Air Force to announce plans to trim 4,000 civilian employees from its payroll in the next couple of months. In July, the Army announced plans to cut more than 8,700 civilian jobs in the next year.

At the Defense Acquisition University, which trains federal contracting officers, the budget cuts mean a growing gap in meeting an increased demand for training, said Chief Financial Officer Mark Whiteside.

“I don’t envy the department budget officers; these are among the most trying budgetary times that any of us have seen in 30 or 40 years, and we’ve seen a lot,” said Paul Posner, a former senior Government Accountability Office official who now teaches at George Mason University near Washington.

Agencies’ 2013 budget requests are due to the Office of Management and Budget Sept. 12, even as managers have little idea what fiscal 2012 will bring.

With the start of the new budget year less than a month away, Congress has not passed any of the dozen spending bills needed to keep government running past Sept. 30. It is widely expected Congress will pass a continuing resolution that extends current spending levels until at least December.

And more cuts are coming: A 12-member bipartisan “supercommittee” of legislators was created as part of the debt ceiling deal to define $1.5 trillion in additional spending cuts.

That panel will report its recommendations to the full Congress by Nov. 23, with lawmakers required to vote the cuts up or down before Christmas. Changes to federal pay and benefits are some of the options likely to be on the table.

If the committee fails to do that, or if Congress fails to approve its recommendations, then $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts across government will kick in.

 

Nicole Blake Johnson, Stephen Losey and Andy Medici contributed to this report.