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

National Journal
Sophie Novack, Clara Ritger and Elahe Izadi
Add to Briefcase
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.”

What We're Following See More »
Is McMullin Building the GOP in Exile?
36 minutes ago

Evan McMullin, the independent conservative candidate who may win his home state of Utah, is quietly planning to turn his candidacy into a broader movement for principled conservatism. He tells BuzzFeed he's "skeptical" that the Republican party can reform itself "within a generation" and that the party's internal "disease" can't be cured via "the existing infrastructure.” The ex-CIA employee and Capitol Hill staffer says, “I have seen and worked with a lot of very courageous people in my time [but] I have seen a remarkable display of cowardice over the last couple of months in our leaders.” McMullin's team has assembled organizations in the 11 states where he's on the ballot, and adviser Rick Wilson says "there’s actually a very vibrant market for our message in the urban northeast and in parts of the south."

Clinton Up 9 in USA Today Poll; Up 3 According to Fox
47 minutes ago

A new USA Today/Suffolk University poll finds Clinton leads Trump by 9 points nationwide, 47% to 38%. A Fox News national poll has Clinton up just three points, 44% to 41% over Trump.

Too Many Potential Enrollees Paying Obamacare Penalties Instead
1 hours ago

One of the main reasons for the recent Obamacare premium hikes is that many potential enrollees have simply decided to pay the tax penalty for remaining uninsured, rather than pay for insurance. More than 8 million people paid the penalty in 2014, and preliminary numbers for 2015 suggest that the number approaches 6 million. "For the young and healthy who are badly needed to make the exchanges work, it is sometimes cheaper to pay the Internal Revenue Service than an insurance company charging large premiums, with huge deductibles."

Cruz: Eight Justices Could Be an Ongoing Situation
2 hours ago

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) said that "there was “precedent” for a Supreme Court with fewer than nine justices—appearing to suggest that the blockade on nominee Merrick Garland could last past the election." Speaking to reporters in Colorado, Cruz said: "I would note, just recently, that Justice Breyer observed that the vacancy is not impacting the ability of the court to do its job. That’s a debate that we are going to have.”

Chaffetz Also Caves, Says He’ll Vote Trump
5 hours ago

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.