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July 29, 2014

Inside the Inconsistent Way Congress Would Implement Its Share of Any Shutdown

One week to go, and still no word from Capitol Hill officials about how the place is going to be different if there’s a partial government shutdown.

Don’t expect any such guidance before zero hour. The members who oversee congressional operations, and the administrators who implement the politicians’ policies, seem to have settled on a bipartisan, bicameral agreement: They won’t say anything in advance about what would keep operating normally, what would slow down and what would stop altogether after midnight on Sept. 30 in the absence of a completed continuing resolution.

That means the great existential question facing every government worker at a time like this — “Am I essential?” — will remain officially unanswered for more than 25,000 unelected legislative branch workers. The comforting, or enervating, word will only come if Congress doesn’t clear a CR on time. If there’s a stopgap spending accord, each job’s place in the congressional pecking order will remain a mystery, at least until the next deadline in December.

There are psychological and political reasons for this.

For the un-elected bosses, there’s a pretty big managerial risk in delivering a “Your work is not essential” message to thousands of employees, then expecting they’ll get back on task and do their best until the budget crisis passes or the furlough notices arrive.

For the politicians, unveiling plans now for a limited shuttering of Congress would send the opposite message of what both parties want the public to hear: The government won’t “close” because we’ll surely get a deal in time.

That said, it’s safe to assume the broad contours of how the Hill would implement its share of a government shutdown — based not only on what happened during the last two, which combined for 28 days at the end of 1995 and early 1996, but also on what officials were ready to implement in April 2011, when a deal to prevent a suspension of non-essential services was struck less than an hour before the deadline.

Quality-of-life perquisites for lawmakers and aides would be the first to go. The members-only gyms in the Russell and Rayburn Buildings would be locked up. Service by the cafeterias, carry outs and catering kitchens would be curtailed. Gift shops in the Capitol Visitor Center would be closed and the professional guides would be told to stay home, meaning staff-led tours only for the legions of tourists who will decamp to the Hill after discovering closed national monuments.

Maintenance of the Capitol grounds would come to a halt and only skeleton crews of tradesmen and engineers would stick around to keep the lights and the chambers’ TV cameras on and the complex free of hazardous conditions. Printing, computer and similar support services would be cut way back. Senate elevator operators would stand down, although a couple of trolley operators on each side would remain to shuttle lawmakers to votes on the older subways.

Other than the Capitol Police, which would maintain almost unaltered operations, perhaps 90 percent of the mostly blue-collar workforce under the two sergeants-at-arms and the Architect of the Capitol would be furloughed.

But nothing close to that level of layoffs is in store for the white-collar workers. A solid majority of chiefs of staff, legislative aides, schedulers and even press secretaries for House members and senators would be told to keep coming to work as normal. Same with the leadership staff and the counsels, investigators and other professionals in the committee offices. Many caseworkers and community outreach staffers in the state and district offices, though, would likely be told to stay home.

That’s because each member would be given total leeway to decide how many staffers they need by their side. The guidance for members 18 years ago was that “only those employees whose primary job responsibilities are directly related to legislative activities” should come to work. But there was no enforcement, and the unavoidable perception from wandering the halls was that even the most obscure members had quickly concluded that most of their own aides were absolutely essential to solving the shutdown mess.

The Capitol’s a different place than it was then, in ways that suggest both a repeat and a deviation from that precedent.

The legislative branch’s post-sequester budget of $4 billion this year is 13 percent smaller than just three years ago, meaning a couple of thousand Hill jobs have been eliminated since the GOP started brandishing the axe. So maybe those who remain really are essential.

At the same time, the Republicans at the vanguard of the budget wars are way more confrontational, and even less enamored of the trappings of congressional power, than their predecessors from the “Contract with America” era. So in theory, they should be ready and willing to save the taxpayers a tiny bit of money by furloughing their own retinue and emulating, for just a few days, the especially frugal ways they seek to impose on the executive branch for the indefinite future.

How consistent their personnel policies would be with their politics might never be known, though.  Members have until Oct. 15 to submit their payrolls for the month. So if a shutdown lasts less than two weeks, they would never have to furlough anyone at all.

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