Staff Furloughs Have Lawmakers Providing Face-to-Face Service

Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., has taken to given tours of the Capitol to his visiting constituents. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., has taken to given tours of the Capitol to his visiting constituents. Carolyn Kaster/AP

The government shutdown has had all sorts of weird, ripple effects: panda cameras shuttered; potential craft beer shortages; T-Rex fossil delivery delays.

But one of the more ironic outcomes of the federal closures is the increased, direct access to your member of Congress. You know, the very people responsible for the shutdown.

That's because many members are themselves performing some of the constituent services normally handled by their now-furloughed staff, such as providing tours of the Capitol and answering office phones.

The level of contact with a member can differ, given that the number of staff furloughed varies office to office. Some constituents may have trouble getting through to a staff member who can help with a concrete problem. But the flip side is someone calling an office may directly get to air a grievance, unfiltered, to a sitting senator, such as Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., or Tim Scott, R-S.C.

Staff-led tours have stopped during the shutdown, and only member-led tours are allowed. The Capitol, typically bustling with tourists, has become a barren place where schoolchildren and senior citizens trail senators and representatives acting as tour guides.

Some offices have been coordinating with those in the other chamber, such as the Iowa delegation. Sen. Chuck Grassley and Rep. Steve King of Iowa have provided joint tours to pool resources during the shutdown.

"Every action has an equal and opposite reaction," said Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., as he led a family of four around Statuary Hall. "You don't get to go to the Smithsonian, you don't get to go to certain memorials, but if you do contact your congressman and you do get a tour, you get a better tour and a more memorable tour, so maybe it balances off part of the shutdown."

At one point, Cohen impersonated Bill Clinton when telling a story, and concluded by backslapping Mike Curtis, a constituent from Memphis.

Curtis called the member-led tour he and his family received "a once-in-a-lifetime chance," adding: "Any other time, it'd be, 'Oh, we'll set you up with tickets, or we'll do this or that.' But for him to actually take us around himself is kind of a great civics lesson for our girls."

It's an interesting civics lesson indeed, given the reason Cohen has the time to lead such tours is due in large part to the shutdown; many committee hearings have been postponed, action on the House floor is minimal, and not as many people are coming up to lobby on issues.

Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., has led five tours this week, as many of his staffers have been furloughed.

Some have had used the face time to talk shop. Republican Illinois state Rep. Dennis Reboletti came to Washington to lobby on local issues. He ended up receiving a Capitol tour from Davis and even chatting with Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., too.

Rather than a 15-minute meeting in a member office, this tour was "very intimate, very open to discussion and opportunities," Reboletti said. "I don't think I would have had ever had the chance otherwise. So while it's frustrating as a taxpayer, Congressman Davis has made it an extremely invaluable experience for me that I'll never forget."

Despite average citizens getting to spend an hour with their lawmakers in such a casual setting, they aren't all availing themselves of the chance to push agendas.

"We're on vacation right now," said Gary Thompson of central Illinois, as he received a tour from Davis. "We're just trying to enjoy it without bringing up policies, politics, whatever you want to call it."

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