News Column

Hagel: Defense Civilians Can Return to Work

October 6, 2013

By Chris Casteel, The Oklahoman, Oklahoma City

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Saturday ordered most of his department's civilian employees back to work, while the House approved legislation to guarantee back pay to all federal workers affected by the partial government shutdown.

Hagel said the Pentagon was recalling all workers "whose responsibilities contribute to the morale, well-being, capabilities and readiness of service members."

It's not clear what workers that would leave out. Hagel said in a statement that managers would begin notifying employees this weekend about their status.

"I expect us to be able to significantly reduce -- but not eliminate -- civilian furloughs under this process," Hagel said.

U.S. Rep. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, and other lawmakers have been pressuring the Pentagon for several days to comply with a law passed by Congress last week and signed by the president to pay military and civilians during the lapse in spending.

When the partial shutdown began Tuesday, the Defense Department sent home an estimated 400,000 workers, including thousands at Oklahoma military bases.

Lankford immediately began questioning why any civilians were furloughed, and he said National Guard and Reserve troops also should have been exempted.

Sen. Jim Inhofe, of Tulsa, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Saturday, "Though Secretary Hagel could have made his decision earlier, he made the right decision to bring our Department of Defense civilians back to work.

"Their contribution is absolutely essential to support our men and women in uniform and maintain our national security."

Defense Department civilian employees make up the bulk of the federal workforce in Oklahoma, which includes about 40,000 employees. Most of the civilian workers at Tinker Air Force Base were not furloughed last week because their pay doesn't depend on direct congressional appropriations.

But about 3,000 Tinker civilians were furloughed, along with workers at the four other major military installations in Oklahoma. Active duty personnel were required to keep working at the outset of the shutdown.

Back pay approved

The bill to ensure all federal employees get their full pay after spending resumes passed the House unanimously Saturday. U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, said it brought Congress a step closer to starting up the government.

"Not only is it good for those individuals, obviously, but it means effectively: Why are we shutting down the government?" Cole said.

"It seems to me we should now be bringing people back to work pretty quickly."

President Barack Obama has said he would sign the bill, but the Senate did not consider it Saturday. Senate majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said it was "really cruel to tell the workers they'll get back pay but then not reopen the government."

In his weekly address Saturday, Obama again called on House Republicans to allow a vote on reopening all of government, saying he would not meet their demands for delaying his signature health care law.

"The American people don't get to demand ransom in exchange for doing their job," he said.

"Neither does Congress. They don't get to hold our democracy or our economy hostage over a settled law. They don't get to kick a child out of Head Start if I don't agree to take her parents' health insurance away. That's not how our democracy is supposed to work."

Many lawmakers went home Saturday -- their first break in several days -- with no clear path to a resolution over a dispute that began with a Republican effort to defund the Affordable Care Act but has lost focus in the past few days.

U.S. Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Cheyenne, said in an interview Saturday, "This is a painful process that's going to keep grinding on ... I think we're in standoff mode right now and nobody wants to give an inch."

Lucas said voters gave Washington a divided government and need to decide which party should be in control.

"It's difficult to work through a process when the voters have put this set of pieces on the board," he said.

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Source: (c)2013 The Oklahoman Distributed by MCT Information Services

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