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Media Availability with Secretary Hagel on the Government Shutdown

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel
October 01, 2013

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL: I know you have -- or I think you just recently here in the last few minutes met with Admiral Locklear, General Thurman. So you're up to date on, I think, that, and I'd be glad to respond to anything you want to talk about there.

A couple of things. One, George thought it would be good to get some time with you all regarding the shutdown and anything that you want from me on that and anything else you want to talk about.

Last night I left the dinner a little early before the entertainment started to spend some time with Deputy Secretary Carter and our comptroller Bob Hale, acting General Counsel Bob Taylor just to get prepared for what we thought maybe coming, which now we know is in fact where we are.

Tonight, I have another conference call with them -- with the three of them to just assure that we -- we're all on track and we are prepared to do all the things that we need to do as people come to work tomorrow morning. Well, I guess it is tomorrow morning there, but they will be coming into work here in just a couple of hours.

You all have, I suspect, a pretty good assessment of, not only what happened, what didn't happen, but what this means generally for the Pentagon. And what will happen is, first, as you know, the president signed into law the exemption of our uniformed military. They will be paid regardless of how long this goes. And they're exempt. And so, our uniformed military are taken care of.

As to our civilians, I know Bob Hale, comptroller, noted that we'll probably have to furlough about 400,000 DOD civilians. And when they come to work here in a couple of hours, those that have been designated non-exempt will be told and will be asked to go home. And those who have been designated exempt will remain on the job and will be paid.

Our lawyers are now looking through the law that the president signed, along with the Department of Justice lawyers and OMB, to see if there's any margin here or widening in the interpretation of the law regarding exempt versus non-exempt civilians.

Our lawyers believe that maybe we can expand the exempt status. We don't know if that's the case, but we are exploring that, so that we could cut back from the furloughs some of the civilians that had to leave. We will continue to work on that. I don't know of the exact time frame on when we'll have recognition of where we think legally we are. But it's a priority that we have and that we're working on right now. And it's, in fact, the priority in our general counsel's office. I think that gives you, at least, a general assessment of where we are.

Now, just a couple of comments about it. I expressed myself, I think, rather directly on our flight over here about the irresponsibility of shutting down the United States government. I've been asked about why during my visit here to South Korea.

It does have an effect on our relationships around the world, and it cuts straight to the obvious question: can you rely on the United States as a reliable partner to fulfill its commitments to its allies? 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. This reflects on our missions around the world. It reflects our allies' questioning our commitments. It affects our planning as we are in the process, as you know, of preparing a 2015 budget as we are preparing for further significant cuts under the current law, Budget Control Act 2011, which means $52 billion in additional cuts. But all this is -- is uncertain.

Now we're going to be able to fulfill our mission of keeping this country, the United States of America, secure. And we will fulfill our mission of maintaining the alliances we have and our troops in South Korea, and Japan, and other treaty obligations.

But it does cast a very significant pall over America's credibility with our allies when this kind of thing happens. It is nonsensical, as I said on the plane. It's completely irresponsible. 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, as is their responsibility. And it puts -- it puts us all in a very difficult spot.

And I think if -- just the human tragedy this has heaped on our civilian employees and -- and government employees across the spectrum. And as I said on -- on the plane, our security, United States of America's security, is not just relying on a strong military. Yes, you start there. But all these supporters in [inaudible] government are part of that support of our security.

And to think of what this is doing to these civilian employees and their families, in our case, and many other civilian employees in other agencies, they've -- they've taken furloughs already this year, administrative furloughs. Now we have legal furloughs.

This is going to impact the future of a lot of our employees. I've had -- I've had a number of senior civilian employees in DOD talk to me last few months about their futures. Their spouses are not happy. They have families. "How can we rely on a paycheck? How can we rely on a future? How can we rely on a career and a job when this is the way we're going to be treated?" And I don't blame them. 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 own people, what we're doing to the people who make the government function. Institutions don't function. People function. People make things happen. And if you don't have quality people, if you don't have people, then I don't care how interesting the theory is of government or political debate, it can't function. You will have a dysfunctional system, a dysfunctional government.

So this is serious, and I want you to know how I feel about it as secretary of defense. I know General Dempsey has talked to many of our people here in South Korea today. He has sent out on his Facebook and Twitter accounts his thoughts on this. All of our leaders, not just military, but our civilian leaders are upset about it because of what it's doing to our own people.

All right, with that, questions.

Q: Mr. Secretary, I just wanted to clarify one or two quick things. You talk about possibly expanding the civilians who would not be furloughed. Do you have any sense of how many that might involve?

And you said something about the ones who are -- are exempt from the furloughs. They would be paid. But do you know of -- will they be paid on time? Aren't they going to be not paid unless Congress allows that?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, let me take that first.

Q: Okay.

SEC. HAGEL: And then I'll get to the second.

It is my understanding that the same category that was included in the law that the president signed, our uniformed military being paid and paid on time. It would also apply to our exempt civilians, those who are exempt and coming to work would be paid on time just like the uniformed military.

As to the question of how many if we can find some margins here in the law, how many civilians we could call back, I -- I don't know. I think it -- we have to, as we are doing now, go through this and find out where the universe exists if it does to be able to expand that exempt list of civilian employees. And then that'll get us to the next steps on how many. We would obviously call back as many as we could possibly call back within the -- within the framework of complying with the law.

Q: Mr. Secretary, I know you said U.S. military will continue its missions --

SEC. HAGEL: Yeah.

Q: -- to secure the United States. But, you know, 400,000 people all of a sudden leaving their job, the backdrop of sequestration, the inability to plan very well, given the money coming from Congress, how much risk does this put on U.S. national security?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, I -- there's no question that it impacts our mission. We're going to fulfill our -- our overall objective and mission of national security. I don't think there's any doubt about that, and that, by the way, includes the universe of the exempt civilians. So we're not doing away with all civilians.

Q: Understood.

SEC. HAGEL: So -- so we've still got a pretty significant number of civilian employees that will be coming to work. So we're not jeopardizing our security.

But -- but my point is this. As we plan for the future, as we plan for the downsizing which is already under way, has been by law and because of sequestration, when you take that number of civilian employees out of the mix of every day planning and working -- and they all work with these kinds of things -- you're going to impact readiness. You're going to impact a mission. There's no point in kidding about that.

But America should not be concerned that their security is now in jeopardy. It is not. It will not be.

GEORGE LITTLE: Do you have time for one or two more?

Q: Can you give us a sense -- you mentioned readiness. Can you give us a sense where these 400,000 people are going to come out? Is it all, sort of, readiness, maintenance? Or -- or what's going to get hit by the lack of --

SEC. HAGEL: Well, it's a -- it's a whole universe of areas that we designated, as you might recall last week. I think you all were briefed on some of this. We went through the process. We started it actually two weeks ago of classifying non-exempt versus exempt. So those statuses were pretty much defined by the end of last week in anticipation of worse case scenarios.

But I would leave that to Bob Hale to really get into the details -- answer your question. But generally I would say that it would apply to areas that do not have a direct bearing on our national security in conducting that national security and supporting those national security missions.

Now again, I said generally that not only DOD, but other agencies of government help with that too. So it's thinning out a support base. But anything that would jeopardize the security interests of this country we wouldn't do, and therefore, could legally comply with being exempt.

Yes? You had a question.

Q: I did. You talked about some of your senior DOD officials --

SEC. HAGEL: Yes.

Q: -- and expressing concern. And -- and so many civilians have already been furloughed. What would you say to them?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, I occasionally have been a pretty good salesman in my life on a number of things. And I first tried to reassure them of their future, but I'm also very honest and always have been. I don't play games with them. I mean, the fact is, if you look at just what's happened in our government the last year in 2013, it's not 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.

And 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, other than -- I do believe this -- that we'll get through it.

I do think that 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'll probably take one election cycle or two before it's there.

But I do have confidence in our country. I do have confidence in our people. I do have confidence in almost a uniquely American self-correction process. We can fix our own problems, and we always have -- doesn't mean we always will. So those are the kind of things I say to them. But it's a serious problem.

Tony, and then we'll --

Q: (OFF-MIC)

SEC. HAGEL: -- go. All right.

Q: For two years in a row, you’ve got sequestration affecting the department. The public has not been outraged. It hasn't pressured the law makers to roll it back. Now you've got shut down. Law makers haven't been pressured by the public to stop it. What do you contribute that to? There's a general sense of anti-government, apparently, that it's falling on your head, it seems like, in large measure...

SEC. HAGEL: Well, I don't think it's just DOD, but it's -- you're right, Tony, it's across the government. There's no question that there is a very strong anti-government feeling in the country. But it's also anti-institution.

You've heard -- some of you have heard me talk about this before, citing Gallop polls and others, the confidence, trust level rating of institutions in this country, in the United States of America, are as low as they have ever been except in military. The military still is up in the 70s. Everybody else is -- is at record lows.

When you have a society that has lost confidence in its institutions and its leadership of institutions, that's a serious problem. Now, I don't think there's anarchy coming. I don't think there's civil unrest coming, so I don't want to exaggerate.

But you're right. There's a very anti-government, anti-everything feeling in this country. I see it everywhere. I hear it everywhere. I hear it from friends everywhere. And I think it's -- it's just a large sense of people having great apprehension and mistrust about leadership.

When you look at the last 12 years -- and, by the way, this is not to blame anybody or any party or any leader. It's just the way it is. United States of American has been through, still is, involved in the longest war it's ever been in, our 12th year. We got out of one of the longest, Iraq, eight years, we'd ever been in. We got hit with the largest financial crisis since the Great Depression, and most Americans were not alive.

So when you just take those three components and so many other thing that have happened in the last 12 years, you get to a point here, I think, where Americans have really been shaken and our off balance in many ways.

I believe we'll come out of that. We're just too good a country. Our fiber's too strong. Our people are too good. We have this self-correction process within our system. It is difficult now.

And the other part of this, I think, too, Tony, that has really shaken people's confidence in government and everything is how complicated the world is. I mean, you look at the Middle East. We've got all these people who have -- oh, they're so smart. They have their strategy on how to deal with Syria and how to deal with Iran. And so, why don't you just take the cook book -- the blueprint, and that's the way to fix all these problems.

Well, it's not. This is a very complicated world that we live in, very complicated. And it's going to get more complicated. So people think their institutions, government especially, have failed them. And in many ways, we have.

But I think the other part of this is -- and then I'll stop this long explanation -- is that most people alive today in America, of the 230 (sic) Americans were born after World War II a by vast majority. The expectations that we have -- and I was born right at the front end of the baby boom generations -- generation -- the expectation level that we have been born into has been as high as any generation probably in the history of man. And that all affects how people see the world.

It's not that I'm -- at all that I'm defending institutions or leaders. Institutions make mistakes. Leaders make mistakes. But it has now come together at a time that we've rarely seen in modern history.

Did you have a question?

Q: Well, I'm somewhat interested --

SEC. HAGEL: And then I'll get --

Q: -- in your observations as someone who's served in the Senate. For example, you no doubt remember encountering Senator Cruz during your confirmation hearing. And he's sort of the mastermind behind this strategy that led to the shutdown.

I'm -- what are your observations, a former senator, about how that body has changed and how the Congress has changed?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, I'm not going to tread too -- too far into that arena. I would just say this. You all are pretty astute and experienced observers of the Congress, and you'll come to your own conclusions of whether it's changed or not.

I do worry, though, about the essence of governing in a democracy and that we have -- we've seemed to lose, and that is consensus and compromise. No democracy can govern itself without consensus and compromise. It is impossible. And we seem to have lost that. We have seemed to have lost our way in that being an objective of governing. We have seemed to have lost our way in the objective of governing.

Most members of Congress, I think most people who hold public office regardless of their party or their philosophical persuasion, present themselves for office because they have some feeling about where they think a city or a state or a county or country should go. And they have some philosophical sense, meaning that they have some appreciation and obligation, responsibility, for governing, actually governing, making tough choices, making the big decisions, working with other people to make it work.

We've lost a good amount of that. We'll get it back. But that has -- that has changed.

MR. LITTLE: Thanks, everyone.

SEC. HAGEL: Thank you.