President Barack Obama spoke to troops and Defense employees minutes after news that congressional inaction had shut down the government, offering some consolation to a department already rocked by budget shortfalls.
In a video released minutes after the government officially shut down, Obama said he would ensure that men and women in uniform would have all they need to defend the nation, including their paychecks on time. Congress was able to pass legislation ensuring service members are still paid during the shutdown, which Obama signed Tuesday.
It's a different story for DOD civilians, who will not receive paychecks until after Capitol Hill passes a budget bill, regardless of whether they are furloughed. Congress would also have to decide separately if any of these workers would receive back pay. Obama told these civilians they "deserve more than the dysfunction we're seeing in Congress."
"I know the days ahead could mean more uncertainty," said Obama, speaking to the roughly 400,000 Defense civilians whose jobs are not "excepted" from the shutdown and will be sent home. By law, only uniformed servicemembers and civilians in direct support of essential missions are allowed to keep working.
Veterans organizations were quick to criticize the government for the financial burden it is placing on troops and the civilians who support them.
"Members of Congress must assure us that a government shutdown must not in any way affect our nation's defense," said Daniel Dellinger, national commander of the American Legion veterans group. "Servicemembers must be paid regardless of the government's status. Troop morale would be seriously compromised, as would quality of life for military families, by the economic uncertainty resulting from a pay freeze."
Furloughs and pay freezes "are equally serious and threatening to our national security," particularly during wartime, Dellinger said in a Monday statement.
"Congress must act to make sure that our troops are paid, no matter what, and that their civilian supporters continue on duty and on the payroll," he said. "This is absolutely essential."
The shutdown is yet another weight on the backs of Defense employees. Roughly 650,000 were subjected to six days of furlough this summer under the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration. The Pentagon also continues to operate under a continuing resolution from Congress, limiting it to 2012 spending levels.
The military is shrinking its numbers after coming home from the war in Iraq and drawing down from Afghanistan. The Army could trim as many as 80,000 soldiers by 2017.
Creating this "leaner military" is going to cause further difficult budget choices, Obama said.
"I'm going to keep fighting to get rid of those across-the-board budget cuts, the sequester, which are hurting our military and our economy," he said.
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