Office supplies, grocery stores among government cuts

Office supplies, grocery stores among government cuts

POSTED: Thursday, March 21, 2013 - 9:00pm

UPDATED: Thursday, March 21, 2013 - 9:04pm

Government grocery stores on U.S. military bases around the world will close one day each week starting in May.

The Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Customs and Border Protection have already started buying fewer office supplies. And at the Department of Interior, employees have had to cancel previously-approved conferences they were planning to attend.

These are just some of choices federal agencies are making on the edges to tighten their belts. By doing so, they hope to minimize harsher cuts like layoffs and furloughs, triggered by the $85 billion worth of forced budget cuts that took effect on March 1, also known as the sequester.

In a small effort to cushion the cuts, the Senate on Wednesday agreed to prevent furloughs of food inspectors and to fund a program that paid some tuition for service members in a bill that would fund the government through the end of September.

Many federal agencies are already working under hiring freezes, no bonuses and curtailed overtime, according to a memo compiled by a union group.

Anticipating the cuts, the White House budget office last month ordered "increased scrutiny" for all new hires, bonuses and travel, even for those who don't work directly for the government.

Whether the hiring freezes and travel cuts really prevent furloughs of other workers depends on the agency.

Paul Lester, director of federal fiscal policy at the watchdog group Center for Effective Government, said some larger agencies, like the Government Accountability Office, have been able to prevent furloughs just by enacting a hiring freeze.

Agencies like the Transportation Security Administration have been able to absorb the cuts better than other agencies, just by cutting overtime.

"So TSA can cut overtime and that's one way they can avoid furloughs," Lester said. "It really depends on how agencies are structured. In some cases, a hiring freeze just isn't going to get the job done."

In the last five months, the Food Safety and Inspection Service cut travel and conferences for employees and even closed five district offices to prepare for budget cuts, said Michael Young, a budget director at the U.S. Department of Agriculture during a Tuesday House hearing.

Despite the cuts, the agency couldn't stop food inspectors from facing a furlough for 11 days between April and September. Only the Senate's funding measure, which passed Wednesday, could stop the furloughs.

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