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What the Recess Rollback Means for Capitol Hill (and Taxpayers)

Police overtime, food workers, Capitol improvements all affected

The Senate's shortened recess means some big changes for workers on Capitol Hill (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
The Senate's shortened recess means some big changes for workers on Capitol Hill (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate’s truncated August recess is changing plans on Capitol Hill, but it’s not yet clear how much it will cost taxpayers.

With lawmakers back in their states, the Architect of the Capitol can typically count on a block of weeks to work on projects that might cause disruption if Congress were in session. And the summer recess is usually a prime time for staffers and Capitol Police to schedule vacations. But not this year.

Back in June, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that the Senate’s August recess would be slashed to just a single week. In reality, senators will have two weeks away, because the Senate wrapped up legislative business last week a few days early and won’t return until midway through next week. But that’s still half the time the chamber ordinarily takes for the summer recess.

It is also twice the time that the Capitol will need to be fully staffed. The budgetary implications remain to be seen.

After House lawmakers left town at the end of July, projects began on their side of the building seemingly overnight. Scaffolding went up around the East Front exterior as stonework preservation gets underway. The scaffolding reaches up the stairs that House members often use to get to and from votes.

And a few chairs in the front rows of the House chamber, spotted during brief pro forma sessions, were transformed. Their seats were laid bare, stripped of their leather covers, but were back in place a few days later in a work of fly-by-night reupholstering.

The Architect of the Capitol’s office didn’t have answers to questions about how the shortened recess would affect repair and maintenance projects.

So it is not yet clear if any major projects on the Senate side will have to be pushed. But Architect of the Capitol teams are busy this week with smaller efforts that would gum up the works on a non-recess day.

On Tuesday, a team tackled one of the six main elevators in the Senate. The lifts are some of the most trafficked in the Capitol itself, shuttling senators from the basement tunnels to the chamber, reporters to the press galleries and workers of all stripes to the Senate carryout eatery. It was a strategic move to do the work this week, when the five remaining elevators can easily meet the sparse recess demand.

Meanwhile, one of the trains, between the Russell Senate Office building and the Capitol, was lifted off the tracks for repairs. There’s more than one train on that route, but when senators are in a rush to get to votes, many aren’t willing to wait. The Senate subway has been known to break down from time to time while Congress is in session, leaving staff and Senators to scramble on the tracks

UNITED STATES - JANUARY 19: A worker pushes a senate subway car Friday morning as the Senate considers the House passed continuing resolution to fund the government on January 19, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Sometimes the Senate subway lines break down. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Any maintenance projects deferred this summer will join an already massive to-do list. The Architect of the Capitol’s maintenance backlog was estimated at $1.38 billion at the start of fiscal 2018. The agency wants to whittle down that total and take early action with preventative maintenance, but it’s hard to keep up with the aging infrastructure at the Capitol.

Recess means much of Capitol Hill is manned by a stripped-down staff. Some building entrances, usually guarded by a trio of Capitol Police officers, operate on a limited schedule, and others are closed altogether. But the Senate division of the police force will be back to full capacity next week when senators return to work.

“Oh yeah, a lot of guys’ vacation plans are messed up,” one Capitol Police officer said.

The Capitol Police do not comment on specific resources used in protecting the Capitol, but the budgetary impact of the shortened recess could show up in overtime costs for fiscal 2018. If the force had planned for recess-level staffing through the whole month of August, officers could be working overtime hours to cover typical duties when the Senate returns.

Capitol Police leadership have been tasked with reining in overtime costs in recent years, and their requests for more officers to cut down on overtime have been met repeatedly. Overtime funding for fiscal 2018 has been capped at $45 million, which is approximately 702,280 hours of additional duty, according to a House Appropriations Committee report.

Stripped-down staffing isn’t just for security, but also for foodstuffs. The schedules of food service workers in the Senate will be scrambled by the early return.

The Architect of the Capitol’s office, which manages food service contracts, would not provide information about any adjustments due to the recess.

But a number of workers who spoke to Roll Call said that while they didn’t have their official schedules for the whole month, they anticipated that the eateries would be open for full service when the Senate returns. They requested that their names not be used.

“Regardless of the month, when the Senate or House is in session, we stand ready to serve,” said Architect of the Capitol spokeswoman Laura Condeluci.

The Senate-side eateries typically operate with shorter hours during recess, and some close completely when the Senate is not in session. 

In 2016, Senate cafeteria workers received a total of more than $1 million in back pay after the Labor Department found that they were illegally denied wages they had earned. Restaurant Associates and its subcontractor, Personnel Plus, were found to have violated federal and local labor laws. 

Restaurant Associates, the Senate’s food service vendor, did not respond to requests for information about how the recess would affect workers’ hours and contract expenditures.

Stephanie Akin contributed to this report. 

Watch: McConnell Cancels Recess, Schumer Says Democrats “Welcome” Extended Schedule

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