Response to Shutdown Varies Widely Among Mass. Congressional Offices

By Shujie Leng
BU News Service

WASHINGTON — During the federal government’s partial shutdown, it’s been left up to each member of Congress to determine who on staff is “essential” and who is “non-essential” – in other words, who has to keep working and who is furloughed.

Among the Massachusetts congressional delegation, as well as Congress as a whole, these discretionary decisions have varied widely – with some legislators temporarily closing one or more of their offices, while others have kept their entire staff at work.

IMAGE: Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has “officially closed” her Washington office along with offices in Boston and Springfield, and most of her staff have been furloughed since the shutdown began on Oct. 1, the start of the 2014 fiscal year, according to an aide.

As a result, phone calls to her office will not be answered, and any letters or emails sent to her office won’t receive a response until the shutdown ends, although a small number of staffers may check voicemails as often as they can, the aide said. During the shutdown, no staffers will be available to handle constituent casework.

Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., has closed both his Fall River and Springfield offices. Although his offices in Washington and Boston remain open, a large portion of staff in those locations has been furloughed. Markey also has delayed his plans to hire new staff.

By and large, the state’s House members have taken a different tack in responding to the shutdown.

In contrast, Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, has not furloughed any of the 13 staffers working in his Washington offices along with district offices in in Springfield and Pittsfield. All offices remain open.

First elected in 1988, Neal is the only current member of the state’s all-Democratic House delegation who was in office at the time of the last government shutdown in 1995-1996. He did not furlough staff at that time, either, said spokesman William Tranghese.

Rep. James McGovern, D-Worcester, also has kept his Washington office and three district offices in Leominster, Northampton and Worcester open during the shutdown. None of his 17 staff members has been furloughed so far, according to spokesman Michael Mershon.

Likewise, the Washington office and five local offices for Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Lowell, “remain under regular operation and staffing levels, in order to be a resource for constituents,” said spokesman Michael Hartigan.

Rep. Joe Kennedy, D-Brookline, has only furloughed one staffer among the 13 currently employed by his office, according to an aide.

Kennedy’s Washington office, along with district offices in Attleboro, Fall River and Newtown, will remain open “to maintain the essential services that help those who need it most in the 4th District,” said a statement from his office.

By constitutional mandate, members of the House and Senate continue to receive regular paychecks during the shutdown. But their staffs, like other federal workers, are not being paid, whether they are at work or furloughed. Last weekend, the House unanimously passed a bill to provide retroactive pay for federal workers after the shutdown ends; the bill is now pending before the Senate, and President Obama has indicated he would sign it..

Among the senators and House members, Tsongas has issued a statement saying she will not accept a salary during the shutdown, and aides to Markey and Warren said they would both donate their paychecks to charity.

McGovern will make a final decision about his salary around Nov. 1, when he is due to receive his next paycheck. In the meantime, he and his family “are making [an] increased donation to the Worcester County Food Bank and the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts,” his spokesman said.

Spokesmen for Kennedy and Neal were unable to provide immediate comment on how those legislators would handle the salary question.

As of Thursday, nearly 250 members of the House and Senate were on record as saying they would either not take their salaries, place them in escrow, or donate them to charity, according to a Washington Post survey.

Several congressional aides said they had received a high volume of calls from local communities about impacts of the shutdown, and that offices that had furloughed staffers might need to recall some of them to handle the increased workload.

“It’s fluid. It involves constant changes,” said an aide to Rep. Bill Keating, D-Quincy.

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