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Shutdowns of the past were ‘emotional,’ ‘terrible’ for Hill staffers

Former aides recall uncertainty as another funding gap looms

Federal workers and contractors, along with their unions, stage a protest calling for an end to the government shutdown and back pay in the Hart Senate Office Building on Jan. 23, 2019.
Federal workers and contractors, along with their unions, stage a protest calling for an end to the government shutdown and back pay in the Hart Senate Office Building on Jan. 23, 2019. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Mark Strand was lucky, in a sense. He wasn’t among the estimated 800,000 federal workers furloughed in the first, five-day government shutdown of 1995, or among the 280,000 executive branch workers hit by the second, which lasted for 21 days. 

Strand kept showing up to his job as chief of staff for Jim Talent, then a Republican congressman. But the atmosphere in the office was heavy.

“Everyone is sort of hanging around waiting for something to vote on,” recalled Strand, who spent more than two decades as an aide on Capitol Hill and later served as president of the nonprofit Congressional Institute.

“You can’t do anything to make things better,” Strand said. “At the beginning it’s not so bad. The longer it drags on, though, it wears you down.”

A shutdown puts congressional staffers in an odd spot. Their workplace is both frantic over the funding stalemate and strangely quiet as other legislation falls to the side. And unlike their bosses, they have some financial skin in the game. While members of Congress get paid on time no matter what, staffers on the Hill have to worry about missing paychecks just like most other federal employees.

That’s what happened to Brad Fitch when he was a Senate Democratic aide in 1995. “I found a sympathetic pizza dealer who gave us a 25 percent discount because I said, ‘Hey, we just missed a paycheck,’” said Fitch, who now leads the Congressional Management Foundation. “You’ve got to get creative.”

Pizza discounts or no, affording groceries and rent is not a given for staffers on the Hill, where about one in eight failed to make a living wage in 2020, according to Issue One, which advocates for government transparency. 

With lots of action this week but little real movement to fund the government before Oct. 1, staffers in both parties say they’re starting to worry — and to wonder what it might mean for them.

“Budgets are tight for Hill staff in general, and they’re already budgeting to the max. Everyone’s stretching on what they can,” said Alex Huang, a senior Democratic House aide. “For some folks it’s their first job out of college and they don’t have a lot of reserve built up. So it’s caused a lot of anxiety.”

Huang worked through the government shutdown that started in December 2018 and lasted 34 full days, making it the longest in congressional history. But that shutdown was only partial. Five of the 12 regular appropriations bills, including the one that funds the legislative branch, had been signed into law, which meant no Hill staff were furloughed or had their pay delayed.

But this time around, no appropriations bills have been enacted, and the chances of a continuing resolution before the funding deadline are uncertain. Unless Congress acts fast, millions of federal employees, including congressional staff, will either be deemed excepted (or “essential,” in common parlance), or they’ll be furloughed. No matter their designation, they legally cannot be paid for as long as the government is shut down.

‘Serious financial burden’

A funding lapse of more than a few days could leave the Capitol in relative chaos, if the 16-day shutdown of 2013 is any indication. Newspapers piled up outside office doors, and signs announcing closures dotted the hallways, Roll Call reported at the time.

“Due to the government shutdown Senator Reid’s offices are closed,” read one notice hanging outside the personal office of then-Majority Leader Harry Reid. 

As Republicans tried to defund President Obama’s health care law and Democrats pushed back, staffers said they felt caught in the crossfire. They described low morale, long security lines, closed parking garages, disappointed tourists, and head-scratching decisions when it came to who was furloughed and who was not. With lawmakers left to decide for themselves which of their aides were key to carrying out their constitutional duties, some sent almost everyone home. Others kept most of their staffers working.

Back then, back pay for furloughed federal workers was not a given, though Congress routinely awarded it retroactively after the government reopened. Now that custom is set in stone and back pay is guaranteed, thanks to a 2019 law signed by then-President Donald Trump after the most recent shutdown. 

But money after-the-fact is a small consolation for staffers counting on their next check to pay rent, student loans or other bills that will come due whether Congress gets its act together or not.

“If you’re an entry-level staffer living paycheck-to-paycheck and you may not get paid for two weeks or a month, that’s a serious financial burden,” said Taylor Swift, a senior policy adviser with the advocacy group Demand Progress.

Thanks to a quirk of the House, staffers on that side of the Capitol won’t see a paycheck disruption unless a shutdown starts to stretch into the later part of October. That’s because House staffers, unlike most workers in America, get paid once a month. But some say they worry a shutdown could potentially last that long, without a clear path for Speaker Kevin McCarthy to navigate the demands of hardliners in his conference. 

And perks like the Student Loan Repayment Program, which helps staffers pay down student debt, would grind to a temporary halt, according to guidance released Wednesday night by the House Administration Committee.

On the Senate side, staffers get paychecks twice a month, leaving them more exposed to delays.

Demand Progress and CMF are among the groups who called on members to address these burdens by front-loading pay for staffers ahead of a potential shutdown. That could be done by using all or a portion of year-end bonuses and meting them out at the end of the fiscal year, they said. 

The Congressional Workers Union, an umbrella group for congressional offices that have unionized or are in the process of unionizing, counts more than 100 unionized House staffers in 10 offices that have received early pay between $1,500 to $10,000 ahead of the shutdown.

Among them are those working for Rep. Maxwell Alejandro Frost, D-Fla., who were set to receive half their annual bonus in their last check before Oct.1. Frost said his office has also worked to educate junior staff on what a shutdown could look like and how it could affect their finances if it stretches longer than a month and their October checks aren’t paid.

“We want to make sure everyone knows so they can plan,” Frost said. “Our hope is that our staff will take the bonus we front-loaded and put it away, just in case.”

He’s also directed his staff toward the Congressional Federal Credit Union, which offers interest-free bridge loans for up to 60 days during funding lapses. Members of the credit union have received more than $1.5 million in furlough relief loans during past shutdowns, according to the CFCU website.

But elsewhere on the Hill, staffers feel communication around the shutdown and staff pay has been lacking.

“We’ve been getting a lot of questions from people concerned about having enough money to pay rent for a month or two or to pay for groceries,” said Sarah Drory, vice president of communications for the CWU. “Obviously, the cost of living is quite high in D.C. and in many of our district offices … and I think it’s hard to find consistent guidance on this.”

‘A fate worse than death’

With the potential shutdown just days away, the House Administration Committee released its updated guidance Wednesday night, detailing the effects that would ripple through the Capitol campus starting at midnight on Sept. 30. 

Individual member offices and committee heads would decide which staff should come to work. Lawmakers could continue to incur expenses traveling to and from their districts, but “any other travel utilizing federal appropriations will not be authorized, including previously authorized CODEL travel,” according to the document.  Trash would still be collected, but offices would have to place their bins in the hallways for service.

Dining facilities on the House side would be closed except for Subway, the Capitol Market and Dunkin’ Donuts, which would operate on limited hours. This has potentially dire consequences for hundreds of contracted food service workers who, unlike legislative branch employees, are not guaranteed back pay at the resolution of a shutdown. Some expressed fear and frustration this week at the prospect of lost wages and financial uncertainty.

Gift shops, barber shops, the flag office and staff gym would all be closed. On the Senate side, the Rules and Administration Committee, which similarly oversees the Capitol campus, was planning to release more information for staffers once a funding lapse begins, if it does, according to a Democratic committee aide. 

Meanwhile, members of Congress themselves will see their own paychecks either way. Their pay is enshrined in Article I, Section 6, of the Constitution: “The Senators and Representatives shall receive a Compensation for their Services, to be ascertained by Law, and paid out of the Treasury of the United States.” 

Allowing lawmakers the power to decide who to furlough in their offices is typical of past shutdowns. Each member gets to decide which staffers are necessary for the safeguarding of human life or property, or are essential to upholding the constitutional duties of Congress, according to Matt Glassman, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute and a former Hill staffer.

“Typically in the legislative branch, the first rule of thumb is that the decision of who is essential is left up to each employing office,” Glassman said.

Though back pay is guaranteed even for furloughed workers, the designation can have serious emotional and psychological implications. For that reason, CMF and Demand Progress are calling on member offices to designate all staff essential.

“On the Hill it’s a fate worse than death to admit yourself a nonessential employee. Who wants to be called that? It’s terrible for morale,” said Strand.

Strand said pressure mounts and work often doubles for those still on the job, and casework especially suffers. During a shutdown, mail is still delivered and Social Security checks are still dispersed. But certain federal programs will shutter, and constituents will need assistance.

“They may have a problem with the VA, or with an immigration case, or maybe they own a small business and they’re trying to stay in business,” Strand said. “These are emotional people calling, and as a congressional staffer you have to say, ‘I can’t do anything about your case because that branch of government has shut down.’ It’s devastating. It really takes an emotional toll.”