House lawmakers demanded to know Thursday why the Pentagon still hasn't put all its civilian employees back to work after Congress passed the Pay Our Military Act last week, which Congress said was designed to get the Defense Department running again.
Rep. Rob Wittman, Virginia Republican, said the legislation states that the Defense Department could determine who provides support to members of the armed services and bring them back to work, yet 5 percent of the workforce is still on furlough.
"While common sense doesn't always apply here in Washington, it seems to me that every member who serves in the Department of Defense supports the armed services," said Mr. Wittman, who serves as chair of the House Armed Services subcommittee on readiness, as he grilled Pentagon officials at a hearing.
Rep. Michael Turner, Ohio Republican, got into a heated debate with Under Secretary of Defense Robert Hale calling for the names of those at the Department of Justice who advised the Secretary of Defense to limit which civilians could be brought back to work, despite the intention of the law to get all DOD employees back on the job.
"I'd like to know who — not agencies — who told the secretary that he was to interpret this more narrowly?" Mr. Turner asked. "You can't just say some nameless, faceless bureaucrat."
Mr. Hale declined to provide specifics of internal conversations, despite Mr. Turner's insistance that Congress had the right to know.
Rep. Bill Enyart, Illinois Democrat, accused Mr. Hale of being part of a conspiracy with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to cause as much pain as possible to the American public and DOD civilians.
Mr. Wittman said that the country is failing to take care of sailors, soldiers, airmen and Marines who protect America, and said it was an "absolute embarrassment" that the administration stopped paying death benefits to troops killed in action in Afghanistan.
He announced about an hour into the hearing that the Senate had just passed a measure that would allow the Defense Department to pay out death benefits, which would go to the president for signature.
In his opening statement, Mr. Hale said that if the intent of the Pay Our Military Act was to recall all civilians, it should have said recall all civilians explicitly. The law required the secretary of defense to make a determination about who was recalled, which Mr. Hale said "clearly showed that a blanket recall was not authorized."
He emphasized that those civilians still on furlough, including public affairs, auditors and personnel supporting non-DOD members, are still valuable to the work of the department.
"Staying on furlough has nothing to do with value to the department, it has everything to do with how POMA legislation was written," Mr. Hale said.
The Pay Our Military Act also does not allow for purchasing consumables. Because of this, the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., is nearly out of toilet paper and coffee filters, said Rep. Joe Courtney, Connecticut Democrat.
Rep. Madeleine Bordallo, Guam Democrat, used her opening statement to repeat the Democrats' call for the entire government, not specific departments, to be opened.
"In a time where we remain a country at war, its important that we continue to support our men and women in uniform even during a preventable government shutdown. However, we can not continue to cherry pick departments and agencies that we want to keep open," Ms. Bordallo said.
During one of her questions, Mr. Hale asked Ms. Bordallo not to use the word 'non-essential' to describe employees, citing the long-term effect it had after the shutdown in 1995.
"We can't operate without them in the longer term. It is very harmful to their morale," he said.
© Copyright 2015 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.