For civilian workers at Pentagon, it pays to work for military

At the Pentagon, some civilians are more essential than others.

Civilians in the public affairs office that supports Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have returned from furlough during the 2-week-old partial government shutdown. But those in Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s public affairs office remain on unpaid leave, even though they perform the same duties in the same agency.

It’s a case of rank — military rank — having its privileges in the Obama administration’s interpretation of the Pay Our Military Act, an ad hoc measure to fund the military in case the government shut down Oct. 1.

President Obama signed the act into law Sept. 30, just hours before the shutdown began, at which time the Pentagon furloughed about half of its 800,000 civilian workforce who were deemed “nonessential.” Most civilians returned to work last week, but about 7,000 remain on furlough.

Lawmakers such as Rep. Mike Coffman, Colorado Republican and author of the Pay Our Military Act, say it was intended to provide funds for all defense workers — military and civilian — as well as for the Coast Guard, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security.

But attorneys in the Justice and Defense departments have interpreted the law to apply only to civilians who provide direct support to members of the armed services, leaving those who provide less-direct support to remain on unpaid leave until the shutdown ends.

Their interpretation allows funding for press office personnel who support “internal” communications within the Defense Department but not those who support “external” communications with reporters or the general public.

Consequently, civilians in the press office for Gen. Dempsey are back at work while those in the office for Mr. Hagel are not.

The administration’s application of the Pay Our Military Act has caused some head-scratching at the Pentagon. For example, the defense secretary’s photographers are on furlough while the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman’s photographers are working, even though their jobs in chronicling their bosses’ actions are the same and sometimes overlap.

Most civilians in the press offices for the Navy and Air Force returned to work last week. Inquiries at the Army and Marine Corps press offices were not answered.

Noting the continuing Pentagon furloughs, Republicans have accused defense officials of playing politics to make the government shutdown appear more harsh than it actually is. Officials say they have done their best to follow the law.

Mr. Coffman and Pentagon Comptroller Robert F. Hale, who issued the Pentagon’s furlough determinations, traded barbs Thursday during a congressional hearing on the Pay Our Military Act.

“I believe the guidance issued by Comptroller Hale was based on a deliberate decision by the Department of Defense to misinterpret the Pay Our Military Act for political purposes,” Mr. Coffman said. “My bill cast a wide net — as wide a net as possible to ensure that the department’s civilian personnel, all of whom are necessary to support military operations, can report to work.”

Mr. Hale responded: “I resent your remarks, and let the record show that I acted on the advice of attorneys and our best reading of a loosely worded law. We concluded that POMA did not provide legal authority for a blanket recall of all DOD civilians.

“First, had the Congress intended or had the law been intended to provide recall for all, it should have said ‘recall all civilians.’ It did not,” the comptroller said.

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