ABOARD US MILITARY AIRCRAFT: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel appealed for U.S. lawmakers to avert a government shutdown next week. He said it is “astoundingly irresponsible” to try to influence policymaking by triggering a funding crisis.
Hagel spoke to reporters en route to Seoul to mark the 60th anniversary of the U.S.-South Korea defense alliance. He said he spent much of the week working on future spending cuts while planning for a shutdown next week that could force 400,000 civilian defense workers to take unpaid leave.
For many of the civilians, this would be the second time in a few months they would be forced to take unpaid leave. More than 600,000 civilian U.S. defense employees were required to take unpaid leave early August in a bid to reduce spending after across-the-board budget cuts went into action in March.
“When the U.S. is considered the greatest democracy in the world, the largest economy in the world, and then put U.S. citizens through this, that’s not leadership, that’s abdication of responsibilities,” Hagel said.
“This is an astoundingly irresponsible way to govern,” he added, saying he hoped members of Congress would work to find “some common ground to govern and at least make the big decisions in the larger interest of this country.”
Funding for many U.S. government operations runs out next week with the start of the new fiscal year on October 1, and unless Congress reaches a deal to pay for its activities, much of the government will be forced to shut down. Only certain activities permitted under law are allowed to continue, officials said.
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives is expected to vote on a bill to fund the U.S. government in the new fiscal year later on Saturday but with a delay on implementing U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2010 healthcare law.
Democrat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the Democratic-controlled Senate would not accept any funding measure aiming to derail ‘Obamacare.’ The White House promised to veto the legislation if it passes Congress.
Failure to pass a funding bill would close down a biggest part of the government since 1996.
A contingency plan released by the Defense Department on Friday said the Pentagon’s 1.4 million uniformed military personnel would continue to report to work in the event of a shutdown but only half of the 800,000 civilian employees would be placed on unpaid leave.
The plan is to have contractors working under fully funded agreements awarded before appropriations ran out, but new or extended contracts could not be executed.
“No funds will be available to pay off new contracts or place additional increments of funding on contracts until Congress appropriates additional funds,” the contingency plan declared.
Hagel said the treatment of civilians under the law governing shutdowns was short-sighted because civilians provided much of the support structure for the military.
“When you look at U.S. defense, it isn’t just the military,” he said. “Our civilian employees and our civilian components are integral parts of the defense and security of the US. The entire support base for our military, our soldiers, comes from the civilian community.”
Hagel’s trip to Asia is his third since he took office at the end of February. The trip was a decision as Obama’s administration shifted some of its strategic focus to the Asia-Pacific region following more than a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While in Seoul, Hagel will also take part in consultative meetings on U.S. – South Korea security alliance’s future direction and to attend a change of command ceremony for U.S. forces in South Korea.
Former director of the U.S. Joint Staff, Army General Curtis Scaparrotti, will take over as commander of U.S. forces in Suth Korea from Army General James Thurman.
Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Martin Dempsey, and the head of U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Samuel Locklear, will also be attending the meetings in South Korea.
After four days in South Korea, Hagel will travel to Tokyo where he and Secretary of State John Kerry will participate in the two-plus-two talks with their Japanese counterparts for the first time in Japan.
“I think it’s very important that we continue to assure our allies in this region of the world that we are committed to these alliances, especially at a time when the U.S. in particular is focused on internal domestic issues, beginning with the budget,” Hagel said.