Essential? It Depends Whom You Work For

Posted October 4, 2013 at 4:22pm

Hours after Congress missed its deadline to agree on a continuing resolution, Tennessee Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn was on “Fox & Friends” saying the federal government might go into partial shutdown for several days, but “people are probably going to realize they can live with a lot less government than what they thought they needed.”

After the deadline, Blackburn had to decide how many employees she needed to fulfill the constitutional duties of her office. Like other members of Congress, she had to take on the role of office manager and interpreter of the Constitution, deciding which functions and staff are essential, and who could be furloughed, or be classified as nonessential.

She went with full capacity. By law, each member of the House may employ 18 permanent employees and four additional part-time, temporary or shared staffers or paid interns.

“Everyone is here and working and ready to serve,” said Mike Reynard, Blackburn’s deputy chief of staff, in her second-floor Cannon office on day four of the shutdown. Staffers stationed at desks nearby nodded in agreement. “We’ve been really busy, and she’s been very involved in negotiations,” he added.

While Blackburn decided 100 percent of the staffers in her D.C. office and two Tennessee district offices were essential, fellow Volunteer State Republican Sen. Bob Corker cut back to a skeleton crew.

Between Republican staff on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, his six district offices and D.C. staff, Corker’s workforce totals 60 people. Eighty percent have been furloughed.

But that could all change, as members can decide someone initially deemed nonessential is, indeed, essential. Or vice versa.

Contrasts exist throughout both chambers, and there are few patterns. There’s no clear relation between party or tenure and shutdown staff size. The offices of the House chief administrative officer and the secretary of the Senate, who are responsible for each chamber’s payroll, did not provide an overall picture of the number of employees furloughed during the shutdown, saying it was a management issue up to the discretion of each member. House Administration Chairwoman Candice S. Miller, R-Mich., estimates roughly half of all offices have chosen to furlough staff. “It’s hard to tell because it’s rolling,” Miller told CQ Roll Call.

“If you view your constitutional duties are to interact with constituents, and that means answering the mail and answering the phones, then, sure, you can identify those staff members as providing essential work,” said Brad Fitch, president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation. “If however, you say, ‘No, my constitutional duties as enumerated in Article 1 of the Constitution means, ‘I vote, I show up’ — a narrow interpretation … I think both could be argued as valid.”

Fitch worked in Congress during the shutdown of 1995-1996 and said then, just like now, most offices had “a lot of uncertainty.”

Those strolling the corridors of, say, the Hart Senate Office Building passed door after door plastered with sheets of paper printed with some variation on “Sorry, our offices are closed.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois both posted closure notices. Stacks of newspapers and magazines from shutdown week sat unread outside the Democratic Steering Committee’s door Friday morning, below a sign telling passers-by the office would not be open.

House leadership offices have also trimmed back. Speaker John A. Boehner’s office confirmed that about half of the Ohioan’s staff had been furloughed. House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy’s office is operating at 65 percent of capacity, according to Communications Director Erica Elliott.

Democratic Sen. Mark Udall declared his staff essential for the purpose of serving the needs of Colorado flood victims. With no mail to sort or committees to prepare for, “we’re allowed to focus almost exclusively on flood recovery,” Press Secretary James Owens said, noting that other office functions had been reduced.

“It’s been pretty much all-consuming,” Owens said. “It’s an all-hands-on-deck moment in Colorado, and by extension here.”

Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz’s office has been functioning with about 40 percent of its staff, and Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill furloughed all but five members of her 51-person team.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., decided her city required full services because of the numbers of furloughed government workers. She vowed not to “abandon our constituents.”

Sens. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and Dean Heller, R-Nev., and a few House members caught some positive press by manning their office phones themselves.

Those phoning the offices of Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, got this message: “We will be unable to respond to your message until funding is restored.”

Many press secretaries told CQ Roll Call they were taking it all day by day.

Allison Teixeira, press secretary for freshman California Democratic Rep. Ami Bera, said, “Literally, at the end of the day, we send an email to say who is coming in the next day.”