What If They Shut Down Congress and Nobody Noticed?

Cliff Owen/AP

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.”

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.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.

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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