Monte Selbe, a Property Control Office officer at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., oversees the installation of new furniture in one of Lejeune Hall's legal offices. Marines could end up having to pick up more slack if civilian workers are furloughed. (Mike DiCicco / Marine Corps)
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The Marine Corps is bracing for sudden and severe budget cuts that could throttle programs and services at installations across the globe if Congress and the Obama administration fail to act by March 1, raising questions as to whether Marines could be called upon to fill in for furloughed civilian employees who perform tasks ranging from range maintenance to janitorial work.
Sequestration would set in motion $500 billion in automatic defense cuts to be exacted over a decade, with as much as $55 billion sliced off the Pentagon's budget for the current fiscal year.
On top of that, additional cuts will happen March 1 unless a standoff in Washington is resolved to raise the federal debt ceiling and Congress passes a continuing resolution to avoid a government shutdown. Doing so would allow the Pentagon to continue spending at 2012 budget levels.
House lawmakers did vote Wednesday to suspend enforcement of the debt ceiling through May 18, but key budget fights remain on the horizon.
The anxiety in Washington is so severe that the military's top leaders are developing detailed, drastic measures to implement should the automatic cuts take effect.
On Jan. 14, Rear Adm. Joseph P. Mulloy, the Navy Department's top budget officer, distributed a memo to Navy and Marine Corps leaders outlining where cuts would occur, where spending would be deferred and how it would affect the services. According to Mulloy's memo, the Navy Department's sequestration plan will be submitted to the defense secretary by Feb. 1. Measures could include:
• Fewer training days for aircraft to fly, ships to get underway and troops to operate vehicles.
• A slowdown in housing construction and operations.
• Postponement of service-sponsored conferences from January to March.
• Delays in starting new contracts.
• Cuts in nonessential travel and training, with senior leadership approval needed.
Additionally, if cuts are made, civilian employees would lose one day of work and pay each week for 22 weeks, starting in mid-April. These mandatory furloughs would carry through the remainder of the fiscal year, which will end Sept. 30, and amount to a month's pay for full-time employees.
"Federal workers are a mere two months away from the worst one-two punch imaginable," the National Federation of Federal Employees, a union whose members include military civilian employees, wrote in a Jan. 11 statement imploring workers to "speak up" against the cuts. "The consequences of these cuts cannot be understated — the results would be disastrous."
Furloughs would affect the Marine Corps' civilian workforce, numbering about 19,400, according to Maj. Shawn Haney, a spokeswoman for Manpower and Reserve Affairs in Quantico, Va.
The mere prospect of furloughs and lost pay, and the broader impact on their ability to help Marines and their families, has unsettled many workers. "What are we going to do?" said one Marine Corps employee in Twentynine Palms, Calif. "People haven't started to take it seriously."
The Marine Corps has not announced details on what cuts would be made, and where, should sequestration happen. So it's unclear to what extent Marines may be needed to fill in should civilian employees be furloughed.
Capt. Eric Flanagan, a Marine spokesman in Washington, directed questions to the Pentagon.
Army Lt. Col. Elizabeth Robbins, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said Jan. 17 that "the department hasn't provided specific guidance on furloughs at this time. The details are still being worked out."
The commandant joined with the other service chiefs in a Jan. 14 letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee calling for a resolution to avert sequestration and a continuing resolution, warning "the readiness of our armed forces is at a tipping point."
"We are on the brink of a hollow force," they wrote, noting "training will be reduced by almost half," the postwar reset will be at risk and a civilian furlough would hit "critical functions, like maintenance, intelligence, logistics, contracting and health care."
The fast-approaching deadline also prompted top civilian Defense Department officials to issue memos outlining additional steps that would be taken. Those cuts would be made on top of existing moves to save money, including cuts to aircraft, ship and ground equipment maintenance, facilities upkeep and modernization, travel, and even administrative supplies.
Marines would likely see slower janitorial services, equipment repairs and possible training disruptions. At the Corps' major bases, civilian employees help run ranges and all manner of facilities.
During a Jan. 17 stop at an Army post in Italy, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called sequestration "a meat ax approach that will hollow out our force." When a soldier asked about the impact on civilian employees in Europe, Panetta said, "it's going to affect readiness. It's going to affect your training."
He did not offer specifics, though.
When a staff sergeant asked about potential impacts on family members whose civilian service jobs could be cut or transferred, Panetta said, "We're all going to pay a hell of a price."
Staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org?subject=Question from AirForceTimes.com reader">James K. Sanborn contributed to this report.