Thousands of Congressional staffers will likely be asking one key question this week: “Am I essential?”
If lawmakers can’t pass a spending resolution by Friday, it will be up to Members and the heads of the support agencies to delineate which employees are termed essential — and would therefore keep working and collecting pay — and which would be sent home.
Congressional leaders have been quick to put down talk of a government shutdown, but the assurances haven’t assuaged all staffers. They have done even less to pacify employees of the Congressional support agencies, who do everything from guard the doors to mop the floors of the Capitol complex.
“Staffers live hand to mouth. Staffers don’t make a lot of money,” said Suhail Kahn, who worked for then-Rep. Tom Campbell (R-Calif.) during the 1995 government shutdown. “Even a disruption of a couple of days could cause a lot of heartburn.”
Staffers tasked with getting the government operational again would fit into the essential category. Members of Congress would also continue to collect their $174,000 checks.
But Hill newcomers in particular, some of whom earn around $30,000 annually, are uncertain about their indispensability. These lower ranks would be hardest hit by a week of missed pay.
“I don’t think that people really understand how expensive of a city D.C. is. ... More than half of my paycheck is going to rent,” said a House Democratic scheduler, who has worked on the Hill for less than a year. “I’d be dipping into savings.”
After the seven-day 1995 shutdown, Congress provided back pay to the non-essential federal workers in the next appropriations legislation they passed. The money was disbursed in a later pay period.
But there is no law requiring that legislators do so. In a climate where Congress and the president are attempting to slash federal budgets and are freezing federal workers’ pay, employees said they are concerned that they will simply be furloughed without recompense.
“That will be one of the open questions, whether the pay will be restored,” said Brad Fitch, president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation. “Things are different. Certainly the financial situation is different” from 1995.
If a shutdown becomes more evident, guidelines about which staffers should be termed essential will be issued to Members, said House Administration Committee GOP spokeswoman Salley Wood.
“If Democrats refuse to cut spending and instead opt to shut down the government, then House Administration will certainly provide the necessary guidance to ensure the continuity of legislative operations,” Wood said.
That doesn’t mean staff will necessarily listen. During the seven-day 1995 shutdown, the Capitol Police had to go around closing offices because staffers wouldn’t stay home, Senate Historian Don Ritchie said.
Those officers, who protect the Capitol and surrounding government buildings, would be considered essential, Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer said.
“The numbers, we suspect, would be reduced based on the number of staff or what goes on at the Capitol,” said Gainer, who is chairman of the Capitol Police Board. “We’re all kind of working through what that would mean.”
Every agency has a contingency plan based on emergency weather situations, he said, and he would use the plan as a starting point and add or subtract personnel as necessary.