House Democrats Want Retroactive Pay for Furloughed Staffers

Posted April 7, 2011 at 5:48pm

As it appeared increasingly likely Thursday afternoon that the government would shut down Saturday, House Democrats said they would push a measure that would restore pay for furloughed government employees.

House Appropriations ranking member Norm Dicks said he would support such a measure, which would have to originate in his committee.

“Absolutely. We would try to do that,” the Washington Democrat said Thursday.

If the government shuts down, essential employees will still come to work while others will be furloughed. Many Members have not yet decided which of their staff members would be furloughed, but some Congressional staffers, such as those who work for the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms’ office, have been notified that they will be forced to take time off without pay.

In order for both essential and nonessential federal workers to be paid, Congress would have to pass a provision in the next spending bill after a shutdown giving the employees back pay. Congress did so after the 1995 shutdown, paying even federal employees who were furloughed.

Fellow House Appropriations Democrat Jim Moran (Va.) said he has the support of House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) for such a provision, but Moran added that he doubts it will fare well in the Republican-controlled House.

“I think we can make a humanitarian argument as well as a practical argument,” the Virginian said Thursday. “The people who are going to be considered essential are going to be the higher-paid employees. The lesser-paid would be those that would lose a portion of their pay” because of forced time off.

A GOP leadership aide said House leaders wouldn’t address the matter unless the government actually shuts down, which the aide noted they are currently working to avert.

Democratic Members say they are skeptical that the Republican Conference would support paying federal workers who didn’t actually work. They could, however, receive backing from some individual Republicans.

For instance, Rep. Jack Kingston said he might favor compensating non-essential workers. The Georgia Republican was a member of the Appropriations Committee during the 1995 shutdown.

“It depends on the circumstances. It also depends on how long they’re out,” Kingston said. “It’s never going to be easy because the public perception is any federal worker is overpaid and underworked, and there’s not much sympathy for them.”

House Administration Chairman Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) said he would have to review any such measure, adding that he doesn’t “want to punish anyone.” The committee oversees House operations.

It’s unclear how many staffers would be furloughed.

Several Members said Thursday that they would wait until the eleventh hour to make a final decision. Homeland Security Chairman Peter King (R-N.Y.), for instance, said he wouldn’t furlough any of his committee staff but might furlough some district staff, depending on how much work they have Monday.

House Administration member Rich Nugent said he would designate three of the eight employees in his office in the Longworth Building as essential. The Florida Republican’s Brooksville, Fla., office, which usually has seven staffers, would also operate with three employees in a shutdown.

“We’re going to have a skeleton crew here and in the district office,” Nugent said.

But Democrats including Moran, Dicks and House Administration ranking member Robert Brady (Pa.) said they would not furlough any of their committee or district staff, and Republicans such as House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (Calif.) and former Appropriations Chairman Bill Young (Fla.) have said the same.

Oversight and Government Reform ranking member Elijah Cummings said his committee staff is already “outnumbered 2-to-1” by Issa’s staff.

“For us to be the position where we walk in with a skeleton staff and he’s got an entire staff, that creates a problem,” the Maryland Democrat said. “I can’t put my folks in a position where we cannot properly address the issues we need to address.”