As sequestration bore down in February 2013, the threat of furloughs for thousands of government workers was a common refrain from those warning of the dire effects of the across the board budget cuts. Janet Napolitano, then-head of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), told Rep. Bennie Thompson in a letter that sequestration could force her department to idle law enforcement personnel for up to 14 days. As it turned out, DHS did not furlough any personnel, but rather relied on cuts to other areas and shifting funds from other budgets to cover salaries. For instance, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) shifted $7 million from its border security fencing account to salaries and expenses.
The details are spelled out in a new wide-ranging report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on how 23 different agencies and their various departments handled sequestration. The CBP's actions were explained as follows:
DHS reported that 7 of its 15 components planned up to 22 furlough days for employees in 2013. For example, in February 2013, DHS's Customs and Border Protection (CBP) notified employees of the possibility of 14 furlough days, but ultimately required no furlough days. According to agency officials, CBP was able to avert furloughs in part because the agency transferred $7 million from its Border Security Fencing Infrastructure and Technology accounts to its Salaries and Expenses account and reprogrammed at least $69 million between various PPAs within the Salaries and Expenses account.
DHS was not alone in avoiding furloughs. Of the 23 agencies reviewed in the GAO report, only seven ended up utilizing furloughs to achieve the needed cuts, affecting about 770,000 employees from 1 to 7 days. The Department of Defense (DOD) reported the lion's share of the furloughs, accounting for 88 percent, or $1.2 billion, of the dollars saved by the federal government via furloughs. Of the 774,366 workers impacted by furloughs, 82 percent worked for the DOD.
Overall, furloughing employees was one of the least utilized means of achieving the cuts required by sequestration. The report detailed the more common methods: "19 agencies reported curtailing hiring; 16 reported rescoping or delaying contracts or grants for core mission activities; 19 reported reducing employee training; and 20 reported reducing employee travel."
The GAO produced an infographic as part of its report, which includes this summary of the primary methods that agencies used to cut the $80.5 billion that was ultimately required:
The GAO recommended that agencies publish the criteria used to determine how sequestration was implemented and how exemptions were determined, and also how the principles used to make decisions in 2013 could be applied to future sequestrations should the occasion arise.