Humor Helped Staffers Cope With Shutdown Fever

Posted April 10, 2011 at 4:53pm

For Rep. Gregg Harper, the surreal nature of Friday’s shutdown countdown was encapsulated by wardrobe options.

The Mississippi Republican began the day with a staffer offering to order him a canary red blazer, the staple of a Capitol tour guide’s uniform, since only Members could accompany visitors if Capitol tour guides were furloughed during a shutdown.

“He said, ‘Hey, what size should I get you?’” Harper joked.

The Congressman ended the night decked out in a black tuxedo that he had no time to change out of in between attending the Cherry Blossom Festival Grand Ball and the GOP Conference meeting where rank-and-file lawmakers would sign off on the deal averting a shutdown.

As shutdown angst reigned across Capitol Hill on Friday, Congressional leaders worked behind closed doors while staffers and support employees, resigned to the fact that they had absolutely no role in averting a shutdown, consoled themselves with furlough humor.

Notwithstanding the looming threat of losing pay and the dejection of being deemed nonessential, as clocks ticked toward the midnight deadline, work life went on as normally as possible.

By noon, Members had started informing staff who would report to work in a shutdown.

“Deemed essential, the whole office,” one Democratic scheduler bragged.

A staff assistant in another office was changing the voice mail message to notify constituents that the office would remain open, government shutdown be damned.

Others weren’t so lucky. Nearly everyone in Sen. Ben Nelson’s office would have been sent home, said the Nebraska Democrat’s spokesman, Jake Thompson.

“People will have to come in Monday morning to put furlough away messages on their voice mails,” Thompson said Friday. “But for the most part Sen. Nelson’s offices will be closed.”

Hoping that a deal would have been struck by quitting time on Friday, Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick waited until the end of the day to tell half his staff on a conference call that they would be furloughed.

“That’s a difficult conversation to have with staffers, but we had it,” the Pennsylvania Republican said.

By early evening, the last batch of tourists looked on as Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) spit fiery partisan rhetoric condemning his GOP colleagues to reporters outside Statuary Hall.

Dave Wilkins of Annapolis, Md., had his tour planned for weeks and felt lucky that he and his five children could get in before the threat of a shutdown could be realized. “We’re happy we were able to be here today,” Wilkins said.

As the building closed its doors to the public, a foreboding silence enveloped the halls, presaging what the Capitol would have looked like had Congressional leaders not reached a deal. When the day’s bustling activity ends, the Capitol’s cavernous halls are vast and vacant.

A handful of overnight workers collected garbage in the House and Senate office buildings, manned one still-running Senate subway train, repaired an escalator and swept Emancipation Hall under the gaze of the model of the Statue of Freedom. Senate elevator operators were on hand as long as the floor remained open. All wondered and asked what the latest news was.

“If the clock hits 12, we walk off the post,” said one employee, relating the instructions given in case a deal was not reached.

A worker in the Dirksen print shop listlessly watched television news to see whether the store would operate with a skeleton crew on Monday or be normally staffed.

Capitol Police officers dutifully manned their stations at buildings’ entrances and stairwells with no furlough threat. There was little action, but officers were told to remain alert, according to an internal memo obtained by Roll Call.

“If there is a government shutdown, there is a movement on Facebook for people to dump trash at the Capitol and at some leadership residences,” the note instructed, a reference to a plan to dump garbage at Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) town house on Saturday morning. “Please closely monitor cameras and if any issues arise please ensure appropriate action is taken.” 

Bleary-eyed Members roamed the halls at night, told to keep their schedules open in preparation for eleventh-hour votes.

But Rep. Louie Gohmert took it as a chance to squeeze in some late-night constituent relations. Around 10 p.m., he was explaining the sprawling scenes depicted by the Rotunda’s grand paintings to a group of about 20 fellow Texas A&M University graduates.

“I knew I was going to be up here waiting tonight,” the Texas Republican said. “I was going to try to show them all I could before we did this.”

He would have to cut the tour short. Between the story of the close friendship of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams and the tale of George Washington resigning his military commission, Gohmert took a cell phone call summoning him to the Republican Conference meeting.

There, Boehner would inform his rank and file that a deal was struck to keep the government open. Reporters swarmed Members, many of whom were dressed in jeans and snacking on Doritos or other light fare.

Regardless of the outcome, at least three staffers had their jobs intact: They hustled a set of flags through the hall from Boehner’s press conference.

Far from the red blazer he was offered earlier in the day, Harper was wearing a tuxedo after the meeting. His daughter, Maggie, is Mississippi’s Cherry Blossom Princess and Harper had just come from the Grand Ball. “Thankfully I got to escort her before I came over,” he said.

The formal wear was also appropriate for a vote of such magnitude, a set of yeas and nays that would determine whether 800,000 federal employees, thousands at the Capitol complex alone, would report to work on Monday.

Each agency had a contingency plan in place, including the House Administration Committee, whose staffers labored feverishly through the week to prepare.

“I worked so hard to get a shutdown plan in place and now …” joked Chairman Dan Lungren (R-Calif.). “I was never so popular as when I said the Members’ gym would be shut down.”

The plan may be useful yet. A protracted budget battle is sure to come and an actual shutdown is anything but impossible.

Leaving the Capitol, a weary Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid perhaps best summed up the feelings of Members, staffers and employees alike when asked what’s next.

“I’m going to have the weekend off,” the Nevada Democrat said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Thanks to the budget deal, at least until Thursday, so does the rest of the Congressional workforce.