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Originally published Wednesday, October 20, 2010 at 3:34 PM

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Obama should consider federal furloughs in cost-cutting program

While local and state governments and private businesses are using unpaid employee furloughs to save money while keeping their work forces intact in a bad economy, the federal government hasn't gone there. President Obama says that might be on the table, and it should be.

PRESIDENT Obama is coming around on worker furloughs, albeit two years after state and local governments and businesses turned to unpaid leave as a way of saving money and jobs.

The federal government is the nation's largest employer, with about 2 million civilian workers. Credible conversations about resetting federal spending must include the federal work force.

Washington state has scheduled 10 furlough days in 2010-11 to help balance the budget. King County enacted furloughs back in 2009.

Speaking to a group of newspaper columnists recently, Obama pointed to a range of federal budget negotiations next year, saying "It would be entirely appropriate for (the administration) to think about the federal work force as part of that overall conversation."

That's a positive sign, but it doesn't go far enough. Other signals show a president too hesitant to move swiftly on substantial reductions in federal spending. Asked directly by a Seattle Times columnist if he'd impose furloughs on federal government, Obama said:

"If that's the only way to achieve the savings, then we've got to make some decisions about what that means in terms of services, because there are consequences." For example, Obama is concerned a federal furlough might exacerbate a claims backlog at Veterans Affairs and force veterans to wait longer for action on their disability claims.

That presumes there cannot be a thoughtful approach to furloughs, for example sparing essential services and those with vulnerable caseloads. The state exempted public-safety and health agencies.

The subject is present on the political campaign trail, where congressional incumbents are facing tough questions about why the federal government hasn't imposed the kind of cost-cutting measures that local government and the private sector have.

The president should also look at reducing the federal work force. A substantial number of federal job openings are expected in the next decade as workers retire. Obama said as part of his request to agencies to consider 5 percent cost reductions, some may opt to leave vacancies unfilled.

These would be modest steps in the face of other countries forced to reset government spending. The British government announced Wednesday $130 billion in cuts, including 490,000 government jobs.

These efforts are critical parts of a disciplined spending plan that relies less on taxes and more on smart, targeted spending.

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