Protecting Those Who Stopped the Paychecks

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 07: A U.S. Captiol Police officer patrols the unusually empty Captitol Visitors Center during the federal government partial shutdown at the U.S. Capitol October 7, 2013 in Washington, DC. The government shutdown has stopped all tours of the capitol building. Democrats and Republicans are still at a stalemate on funding for the federal government as the partial shutdown goes into its seventh day. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
National Journal
Elahe Izad and Ben Terris
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Elahe Izad Ben Terris
Oct. 7, 2013, 2:49 p.m.

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.

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