War is often described as hours of tedium punctuated by moments of terror. It’s an apt description of protecting the Capitol during the shutdown, too.
This week, cops patrol hallways, statuaries, and rotundas that are completely devoid of people (“Welcome to my hall of boredom!” exclaims one officer walking toward the Senate chamber). Last week, however, they scrambled to respond after gunshots left one woman dead and the entire complex on lockdown. Either way, it’s not a job people want to do without collecting a paycheck—or at least knowing when they’re going to get one.
Across the country, there are about 2 million federal workers who could miss paychecks while the government is shut down. They are FEMA workers, park rangers, and Pentagon personnel, to name just a few. But there’s one group who are forced to spend their days protecting the very lawmakers who stopped the paychecks: the Capitol Police.
They are almost guaranteed to get back pay—especially after President Obama said he would support a bill passed unanimously in the House of Representatives that promised to pay the nearly 800,000 people furloughed—but have to wait until the government reopens for business. No one knows when that will be.
“There can’t be an end for something until there’s a beginning,” said one officer standing outside the Capitol.
The force will be paid for its work in September by Oct. 17, but if the shutdown continues for long after that, it’s unclear the next time they will be paid. Missing a pay period, even for a group of people with a starting salary of about $56,000 (among the higher base salaries for area officers, according to a 2012 Government Accountability Office report), isn’t an easy thing.
Some officers’ spouses are also federal employees not getting paychecks until the shutdown ends. Some are calling banks to work out mortgage payments, while others are relying on savings if the shutdown drags on.
“It’s like the guys who come back from war missing a leg,” said one officer. “You can either commit suicide or go on. There’s just nothing we can do.”
Lawmakers on the Hill have acknowledged their sacrifice. “Today and every day that the federal government remains closed for business, these Capitol Police officers—and tens of thousands of other public servants, including many law-enforcement officials—are working without pay,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who once worked on the force.
Even Senate Chaplain Barry Black, who has lately injected himself into the shutdown debate by praying for God to do things like “save us from the madness,” highlighted the irony. The day after a woman drove at a Capitol grounds barricade, Black began the Senate session by intoning, “May we go beyond applause in expressing our gratitude but make decisions that will ensure their timely and fair compensation.”
And it’s not just in front of the bright lights and cameras that members profess their support. It’s always been something of a trope for lawmakers to get chummy with the force, but the shutdown has kicked it up a notch. “It’s extra right now,” one officer noted. “They’re really hamming it up.”
It doesn’t always come across as genuine.
“They don’t care,” an officer said about the members of Congress who have offered public support. “What we need to do is freeze their bank accounts and their wives’ bank accounts. That’d get them to act.”
Thursday, the day the Capitol was on lockdown and shots rang through the air, was particularly difficult. “The general consensus is that eventually we’ll get paid; at the end of the day it’s just delayed. But there’s real anger at people being disrespectful at the police who are protecting them from imminent harm,” said one officer.
But even that officer noted that a number of members of Congress, even those he’s never spoken with, have “apologized profusely” to him. And he believes they are sincere.
“If Halloween comes and goes and there’s no candy on the table, people are going to freak,” an officer said, “and no one I’ve talked to can handle it if it goes like last time.”
The last government shutdown went on for 26 days.
This article appears in the October 8, 2013 edition of NJ Daily as Protecting Those Who Stopped the Paychecks.