Amid Shutdown, the ‘Do-Nothing’ Label Just May Fit

National Journal
Sophie Novack, Clara Ritger and Elahe Izadi
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Sophie Novack Clara Ritger Elahe Izadi
Oct. 2, 2013, 6:21 p.m.

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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