Amid Shutdown…Who Is Getting Paid In Congressional Offices?

By Shelby Carignan
BU Washington News Service

WASHINGTON – If much of the public is pointing fingers at Congress for the legislative gridlock that has led to a partial shutdown of the federal government, congressional offices are feeling some of the same pain as the departments and agencies of the executive branch.

As the shutdown entered its fourth day, furloughs have left Maine and New Hampshire congressional offices with sharply reduced staffs, along with total closure of some state and district offices that provide services to local constituents.

A number of the affected offices are down to less than 25 percent of their normal staff contingent, according to congressional aides – many of whom spoke on the condition that they not be quoted by name.

While members of Congress are subject to the same laws as the executive branch in the event of a shutdown, the statute is vague in many respects – leaving it largely up to individual members of Congress to decide what are considered “essential” and “non-essential” services, and which staffers should be furloughed.

According to a memo that legislators received explaining the constitutional responsibilities of congressional staff under applicable law, only employees who perform legislative duties that are “authorized by law” are permitted to work during “a lapse in appropriations,” such as a government shutdown.

Interpreting these guidelines has been left to the each congressional office, including which staffers stay on the job and which offices stay open.

“It’s all about whether or not they choose to interpret their constitutional duties literally, by cutting everything but essential voting and legislative functions, or more modernly,” explained Bradford Fitch, president of the Congressional Management Foundation, a private group that advises Congress on “best management” practices.

Added Fitch: “Some are thinking ‘How am I supposed to understand what constituents are thinking in this time of crisis if I don’t have people answering the phones? And how can I perform my constitutional responsibility to understand what the public wants and what my constituents need if I don’t have the staff to support them?’

“I think there are equal arguments to be made from both sides, and members have the flexibility to interpret [the law] as they see fit,” Fitch said.

Although Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Angus King, I-Maine, have taken different approaches since a fight over the Obama administration’s healthcare program led to Congress’ failure to provide government funding for the 2014 fiscal year that began Tuesday, sources in both offices described their current staffs as “skeletal.”

In each of her six offices in Maine, Collins has a limited number of employees present to answer phones and respond to questions from constituents. Her Capitol Hill office has been reduced from the usual 22 staffers down to five.

King, on the other hand, fully closed all of his offices in Maine and locked the doors of his Washington office, even though just under half of his 24-person D.C. staff remained at work. An aide confirmed that a total of 30 members of King’s staff in Washington and back in Maine are not permitted to work.

No one on King’s staff is answering the phones, and non-urgent voicemails left at his offices will go unanswered until after the shutdown ends.

State offices for both New Hampshire senators – Democrat Jeanne Shaheen and Republican Kelly Ayotte — are completely closed. Sources from both offices confirmed that the majority of their staffs in Washington have been furloughed, although there are still employees on duty to answer the phones.

Unlike her colleagues, no members of the staff of Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, stopped working, and all of her offices in Washington and Maine remain open, although her press secretary, Willy Ritch, said the situation is being “re-evaluat[ed] daily.”

While Ritch suggested the House may have been given ““more latitude” than the Senate in terms of cuts, staffers for Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, D-N.H., said Kuster’s offices in Nashua and northern New Hampshire will be closed for the remainder of the shutdown, with a sharply reduced staff contingent operating the Washington office.

The district offices of Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., in Rochester and Manchester are closed, with her Washington office operating with a sharply curtailed staff.

Furloughed “non-essential” staff members are legally required to abstain from working without pay, although staff that has been deemed essential are not currently receiving paychecks – with no legal guarantee that they will be reimbursed once the government reopens.

Under law, only House and Senate members must be paid. But all of New Hampshire’s senators and House members, along with Collins, King and Pingree of Maine, have indicated they will either donate their salaries to charity or place their compensation in escrow until federal employees are back at work and being paid.

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