Staff Furloughs Have Lawmakers Providing Face-to-Face Service

One of the more ironic outcomes of the federal closures is the increased, direct access to your member of Congress.

Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., leads a group on a tour of the Capitol.
National Journal
Elahe Izad
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Elahe Izad
Oct. 10, 2013, 2:54 p.m.

The gov­ern­ment shut­down has had all sorts of weird, ripple ef­fects: panda cam­er­as shuttered; po­ten­tial craft beer short­ages; T-Rex fossil de­liv­ery delays.

But one of the more iron­ic out­comes of the fed­er­al clos­ures is the in­creased, dir­ect ac­cess to your mem­ber of Con­gress. You know, the very people re­spons­ible for the shut­down.

That’s be­cause many mem­bers are them­selves per­form­ing some of the con­stitu­ent ser­vices nor­mally handled by their now-fur­loughed staff, such as provid­ing tours of the Cap­it­ol and an­swer­ing of­fice phones.

The level of con­tact with a mem­ber can dif­fer, giv­en that the num­ber of staff fur­loughed var­ies of­fice to of­fice. Some con­stitu­ents may have trouble get­ting through to a staff mem­ber who can help with a con­crete prob­lem. But the flip side is someone call­ing an of­fice may dir­ectly get to air a griev­ance, un­filtered, to a sit­ting sen­at­or, such as Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., or Tim Scott, R-S.C.

Staff-led tours have stopped dur­ing the shut­down, and only mem­ber-led tours are al­lowed. The Cap­it­ol, typ­ic­ally bust­ling with tour­ists, has be­come a bar­ren place where school­chil­dren and seni­or cit­izens trail sen­at­ors and rep­res­ent­at­ives act­ing as tour guides.

Some of­fices have been co­ordin­at­ing with those in the oth­er cham­ber, such as the Iowa del­eg­a­tion. Sen. Chuck Grass­ley and Rep. Steve King of Iowa have provided joint tours to pool re­sources dur­ing the shut­down.

“Every ac­tion has an equal and op­pos­ite re­ac­tion,” said Rep. Steve Co­hen, D-Tenn., as he led a fam­ily of four around Statu­ary Hall. “You don’t get to go to the Smith­so­ni­an, you don’t get to go to cer­tain me­mori­als, but if you do con­tact your con­gress­man and you do get a tour, you get a bet­ter tour and a more mem­or­able tour, so maybe it bal­ances off part of the shut­down.”

At one point, Co­hen im­per­son­ated Bill Clin­ton when telling a story, and con­cluded by back­slap­ping Mike Curtis, a con­stitu­ent from Mem­ph­is.

Curtis called the mem­ber-led tour he and his fam­ily re­ceived “a once-in-a-life­time chance,” adding: “Any oth­er time, it’d be, ‘Oh, we’ll set you up with tick­ets, or we’ll do this or that.’ But for him to ac­tu­ally take us around him­self is kind of a great civics les­son for our girls.”

It’s an in­ter­est­ing civics les­son in­deed, giv­en the reas­on Co­hen has the time to lead such tours is due in large part to the shut­down; many com­mit­tee hear­ings have been post­poned, ac­tion on the House floor is min­im­al, and not as many people are com­ing up to lobby on is­sues.

Rep. Rod­ney Dav­is, R-Ill., has led five tours this week, as many of his staffers have been fur­loughed.

Some have had used the face time to talk shop. Re­pub­lic­an Illinois state Rep. Den­nis Re­boletti came to Wash­ing­ton to lobby on loc­al is­sues. He ended up re­ceiv­ing a Cap­it­ol tour from Dav­is and even chat­ting with Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., too.

Rather than a 15-minute meet­ing in a mem­ber of­fice, this tour was “very in­tim­ate, very open to dis­cus­sion and op­por­tun­it­ies,” Re­boletti said. “I don’t think I would have had ever had the chance oth­er­wise. So while it’s frus­trat­ing as a tax­pay­er, Con­gress­man Dav­is has made it an ex­tremely in­valu­able ex­per­i­ence for me that I’ll nev­er for­get.”

Des­pite av­er­age cit­izens get­ting to spend an hour with their law­makers in such a cas­u­al set­ting, they aren’t all avail­ing them­selves of the chance to push agen­das.

“We’re on va­ca­tion right now,” said Gary Thompson of cent­ral Illinois, as he re­ceived a tour from Dav­is. “We’re just try­ing to en­joy it without bring­ing up policies, polit­ics, whatever you want to call it.”

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