SEOUL, South Korea — The Defense Department and other government agencies responsible for national security will carry out their missions despite the government shutdown, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in Seoul, South Korea Oct. 1.
The secretary, traveling in the Asia-Pacific this week for high-level meetings here and in Japan, sat down with reporters traveling with him to explain what is known, and what isn’t, as nonessential government services are temporarily mothballed.
The secretary said he left last night’s state dinner honoring the U.S.-South Korea alliance, at which he spoke, “a little early” for a teleconference with Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter, comptroller Bob Hale and acting general counsel Robert Taylor. During that conversation, he said, the four discussed possibilities for minimizing the shutdown’s effects on some 400,000 civilian employees who will be furloughed.
“Our uniformed military are taken care of” and will be paid, the secretary said, because President Barack Obama signed that exemption. Hagel said most Defense Department civilians who will be furloughed will receive official notification when they report to work today, and “will be asked to go home.” Those who are exempt from the shutdown will remain at work and will be paid, he added.
Government agencies, including the Office of Management and Budget, have issued guidance to the civilian workforce in recent weeks on how to implement a shutdown. Hagel said today the department is working to identify whether some civilians may be called back from furlough based on the nature of their duties, but he cautioned the question might not be answerable immediately.
“Our lawyers are now looking through the law that the president signed … to see if there’s any margin here, or widening in the interpretation of the law of exempt versus non-exempt civilians,” he said. “But it’s a priority that we have, that we’re working on right now. It’s, in fact, the priority in our general counsel’s office.”
Hagel will again consult with other Pentagon leaders later this evening – Seoul is 13 hours ahead of Washington – to further manage the adjustments the shutdown forces on the department.
The secretary noted he has been asked repeatedly by South Korean officials here why the shutdown occurred. Hagel, this week, called the action irresponsible, and he said today it affects “our relationships around the world.”
He added, “It cuts straight to the obvious question: can you rely on the United States … to fulfill its commitments to its allies?”
The secretary continued, “Here this great republic and democracy, the United States of America, shuts down its government. The Pentagon, even though we are exempted – our military – has no budget. We are still living under this dark cloud of uncertainty, not knowing what’s going to happen.”
The shutdown affects missions around the world, the confidence of the nation’s allies and planning for pending budget cuts, he said, but core missions will be carried out.
“We’re going to be able to fulfill our mission of keeping this country … secure, we will fulfill our mission of maintaining the alliances we have and our troops in South Korea [and] Japan, and other treaty obligations,” Hagel stated.
He warned, however, that the shutdown casts a significant pall over America’s credibility with its allies.
“It is nonsensical … it is completely irresponsible,” the secretary said. “It’s needless. It didn’t have to happen. And I would hope that our Congress can find a new center of gravity of responsibility, and start to govern.”
Hagel said the shutdown “puts us all in a very difficult spot.” A strong military is essential to the nation’s security, he said, but civilian employees, not only in DOD, but across government, also play a vital role in that mission.
“To think of what this is doing to these civilian employees and their families … they’ve taken furloughs already this year – administrative furloughs,” the secretary said. “Now we have legal furloughs. This is going to impact the future of a lot of our employees.”
Hagel said a number of senior DOD civilians have spoken to him in recent months about their future.
“Their spouses are not happy; they have families – [they ask] how can we rely on a paycheck, how can we rely on a future … when this is the way we’re going to be treated?”
He added, “And I don’t blame them. That human dimension often gets lost in this great arena of debate in Washington – what we’re doing to our people … who make the government function.”
Without quality employees, he added, “you will have a dysfunctional system; a dysfunctional government. This is serious.”
Military and civilian leaders from himself and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – who is also in Seoul this week – on down have sent out messages this week to the military and civilian workforce and “are upset about” the shutdown, Hagel said.
“When you take that number of civilian employees out of the mix of everyday planning and working … you’re going to impact readiness,” he said. “There’s no point in kidding about that. But [Americans] should not be concerned that their security is now in jeopardy. It is not; it will not be.”
Hagel said he tries to reassure civilian employees, but he knows the events of the last year haven’t been “very reassuring to people who have begun to build very promising, important careers, and their families rely on that – their wives, their husbands, their children. To see this kind of uncertainty, now, become almost a regular dimension of their career is very unsettling, and I don’t try to convince them otherwise.”
Hagel said he does believe “we will find a new center of gravity of governing in the United States of America; I think we are seeing an evolving new coalition of governance start to appear.”
It may take an election cycle or two for that evolution to take hold, Hagel said.
“I do have confidence in our country,” he said. “I do have confidence in our people … [and] almost a uniquely American self-correction process. We can fix our own problems, and we always have.”