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.
Representatives from the Architect of the Capitol, Government Printing Office, Library of Congress and Government Accountability Office said they are prepared to make these decisions if they have to.
Employees who handle the Capitol’s other core functions, such as Capitol Power Plant workers and computer technicians, would likely report to work as well, said Scot Faulkner, who was the House’s Chief Administrative Officer during the 1995 shutdown.
“There’s certain people who would certainly be viewed as key,” Faulkner said. Others are not, he added. “You don’t need to have wastebasket emptiers or carpet vacuumers. Those people can be put on hiatus.”
But much like the junior staffers, these menial workers stand to lose the most. Then there are tour guides and visitor assistants who as of Friday didn’t know whether the Capitol would be open to the public during a shutdown.
They will meet with Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers this week, said Carl Goldman, executive director of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 26, which encompasses four unions across the Capitol complex.
“We are going to be hammering through information to get to our members,” Goldman said. “We have many people living from paycheck to paycheck whose families will be severely impacted by a shutdown.”
Bill Blevins, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 121, said his members who work for the Architect of the Capitol would most likely be considered nonessential. As of Friday, he said, the agency has not been forthcoming with information confirming it, though he has requested it.
“I can imagine rent payments being missed, mortgages, car payments,” he said. “You’re talking about people who couldn’t easily miss a paycheck here.”
Today, Librarian James Billington will meet with Saul Schneiderman, president of the Library of Congress union, Schneiderman said. He was working for the Library during the last shutdown and knows the toll isn’t only financial.
“It’s not just the economic anxiety of knowing that we won’t get paid. It’s being away from the work that we do. It’s very, very alienating,” Schneiderman said.
The union is holding emergency meetings to figure out what kind of financial assistance they can offer to workers in need.