While people often complain about a Do-Nothing Congress, massive staff reductions inside the Capitol could make that truer than ever before.
The day-to-day business of congressional offices and committees — from constituent service to hearings and investigations — is largely on hold, as House Republicans and Senate Democrats stalemate over a budget agreement.
Many offices are running with only a fraction of their usual staff, forcing lawmakers to prioritize what gets done and employees to struggle against gargantuan workloads.
“The enemy of productivity is fear and anxiety,” said Robert Tobias, a professor at American University’s School of Public Affairs. “It’s very difficult to get anything done when you’re stretched thin and anxious about whether you are going to be paid.”
Scenes of exactly that played out all over the Capitol, as lawmakers revealed how their offices and committees would manage the shutdown. The choice of who is deemed essential and who is furloughed is left to each individual member. The same goes for committees, where the chair and ranking member decide.
According to guidance issued by the House Administration Committee, essential employees are those whose jobs are “associated with the constitutional responsibilities, the protection of life, or the protection of property.” There is no requirement as to how many employees each office needs to furlough, although offices do incur a debt for staff work, which will presumably be paid once the government is funded again.
Lawmakers addressed the situation differently. Offices for Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Chris Murphy, for example, had signs up saying they were closed, with phone numbers to call. Others, such as that of Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., were open with some staff inside.
Committees, too, were a mixed bag. The House Oversight Committee continued with its scheduled hearing Tuesday, which turned out to be first day of the shutdown. But the House Judiciary Committee postponed full committee markups and Immigration Subcommittee hearings.
One common complaint was how to address the large volume of calls and constituent mail that comes in daily. “Productivity has suffered,” said one Senate aide, whose office shrank from 29 staffers and interns to just eight. “Letters aren’t getting responded to and are piling up. We’re monitoring phone messages, but we’re not answering the phones.”
In some cases, however, the lack of staff made for good optics. Sen. Joe Manchin’s staff, for example, sent out a photo of him answering his own phones. A walk over to the office revealed the West Virginia Democrat at a receptionist’s desk, chatting away as reporters and cameras watched.
Manchin’s office received about 200 voice mails from constituents Tuesday, many wanting to know whether various social services were still available. They got another 200 calls Wednesday. So when Manchin arrived at his office around 9:45 a.m. and heard the phones ringing, he sat down and picked up — and he kept going as people in suits arrived for scheduled meetings.
“They’re upset, truly upset,” Manchin told National Journal Daily, describing the constituents who called. “They’re scared and upset. And this is self-inflicted pain. I just apologize. I am a member of Congress, and I apologize for this unnecessary shutdown.”
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"Even if House Republicans manage to get enough members of their party on board with the latest version of their health care bill, they will face another battle in the Senate: whether the bill complies with the chamber’s arcane ... Byrd rule, which stipulates all provisions in a reconciliation bill must affect federal spending and revenues in a way that is not merely incidental." Democrats should have the advantage in that fight, "unless the Senate pulls another 'nuclear option.'”
The House has passed a one-week spending bill that will avert a government shutdown which was set to begin at midnight. Lawmakers now have an extra week to come to a longer agreement which is expected to fund the government through the end of the fiscal year in September. The legislation now goes to the Senate, where it is expected to pass before President Trump signs it.
President Trump’s portrayal of an effort to funnel more Medicaid dollars to Puerto Rico as a "bailout" is complicating negotiations over a continuing resolution on the budget. "House Democrats are now requiring such assistance as a condition for supporting the continuing resolution," a position that the GOP leadership is amenable to. "But Mr. Trump’s apparent skepticism aligns him with conservative House Republicans inclined to view its request as a bailout, leaving the deal a narrow path to passage in Congress."
Democrats in the House are threatening to shut down the government if Republicans expedite a vote on a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, said Democratic House Whip Steny Hoyer Thursday. Lawmakers have introduced a one-week spending bill to give themselves an extra week to reach a long-term funding deal, which seemed poised to pass easily. However, the White House is pressuring House Republicans to take a vote on their Obamacare replacement Friday to give Trump a legislative victory, though it is still not clear that they have the necessary votes to pass the health care bill. This could go down to the wire.