If Anything Can Inspire Sympathy for Government Employees, It's the Sequester

Congress is probably one of the worst bosses in the world: It's 535 Bill Lumberghs asking you to work on Saturday. Executives affected by the sequestration explain why.

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Congress is probably one of the worst bosses in the world. In March, the sequestration kicked in, the functional equivalent of your boss strolling into your office and demanding you unilaterally cut costs by eight percent. No other guidance; you just need to make everything you do one-twelfth less expensive. After three years pay freezes for your entire organization. And then your boss strolls back out to complain about something he hates for the fortieth time. 535 Bill Lumberghs asking you to work on Saturday.

In light of the demands of sequestration, the people who actually have Congress as a boss — executives at various government agencies — were pretty subdued in offering their thoughts on the situation. As part of an annual event hosted by the Senior Executives Association, a professional association for government employees, several executives honored by the president spoke on the topic, as our colleagues at Government Executive report. That discussion included direct quotes that weren't attributed to the employees.

Quotes like this one, from an executive with the Defense Department. (All quotes below are from the SEA's release.)

"We’re expected to complete the same missions that we did before and when something goes wrong … nobody stands up and says, ‘Well, it’s because we gave them less money.’"

The sequestration, it's worth remembering, was supposed to be a poison pill, an untenable proposal to enforce budget cuts if Congress couldn't reach a budget agreement. Congress couldn't reach a budget agreement, so the pill went into effect. And, to the speaker's point, Congress probably isn't going to be champing at the bit to accept blame for the problems that result.

Let's say that you do what your boss asks, and then scramble to avoid any lasting damage from the cuts. The executives considered that, too.

"We’ll be damned if we do and damned if we don’t. If we avoid any big problems, then it looks like, ‘oh, five percent cut, no big deal,’ but if the problems do occur, there will be the casting of blame."

Prompting this response:

"[T]hen somebody up on the Hill is going to say, ‘see, they were just hiding all the fat. We knew it was there. They managed a five percent cut. Next year, let’s hit them with ten.’"

Especially because next year is an election year.

The executives also suggested that Congress' suggestions for achieving the cuts aren't particularly helpful. "You hear people on the Hill saying ‘well, what’s the big deal about raising the temperature a little – or furloughing an employee for one day a period?’ Great solutions." Or, as one pointed out, cheering an 87 percent reduction in training costs, which the employee feared would cause the agency to "crumble on the back end."

In one area, the sequestration is increasing costs: spending on budget planning.

“I wish someone could put a price tag on redoing who knows how many budgets, who knows how many times, this year alone. How many dollars have we spent across the federal government because of sequester considerations?"

At the end of June, more than half of respondents in a Gallup poll didn't know enough to judge if the cuts were good or bad for the government. The American public has largely been shielded from the effects that the executives are seeing, which prompted several to suggest that they should.

"Until it hits an individual, whether in their pocketbook or in their day to day life, it’s just something nebulous that they may hear about on TV or read in the news, but until it becomes real to them – when they drive up to Yellowstone and the gate is closed – then it becomes personal, and becomes something they’re going to get involved in."

If not now, eventually. The SEA summarizes the long-term effect.

One executive asked his fellow award winners if they were “watching how many retiree applications that OPM is processing?” He said he envisions the future as a tremendous knowledge drain. Coupled with those retirements, he is “under a strict hiring freeze. I’m supposed to be growing a workforce right now because of a new program, but it’s actually going down because of turnover and retirements.”

On the other hand, we're hearing that Congress is considering making next Friday Hawaiian shirt day. It all evens out.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.