Hill staffers facing lost pay, ‘non-essential’ label in shutdown

Many Capitol Hill staffers will be out of work and could be asked to fork over their laptops, iPhones and BlackBerrys next week if there is a government shutdown.

Aides will also be labeled into two categories: essential and non-essential.

With a showdown looming, the House Administration Committee on Wednesday sent out instructions on the furlough process.

Offices were told to weigh whether a staff member is essential by determining whether his/her primary job is “directly related to constitutional responsibilities, the protection of human life, or the protection of property.”

“All other House personnel shall be placed in a furlough status by the appropriate employing authority until further appropriations are made,” the guidance from the House panel states.

President Obama, Vice President Biden and lawmakers would continue to get paid if the government were to shutter. Public tours of the Capitol would be canceled and the Botanic Garden would be closed.

Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) has introduced a bill that would block payments to Obama, Biden, members of Congress and the heads of federal agencies if the government were to close, while Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) proposed a measure that would reduce the annual rate of pay for members of Congress.

Furloughed employees would keep receiving their health benefits, but would be prohibited from performing their official duties. In order to ensure this, the House Administration panel suggested that offices should consider requiring staffers to turn in their electronic devices.

During the shutdowns in the mid-1990s, furloughed staffers received back pay. But there’s no guarantee that will happen this time around.

The Administration Committee advised offices not to use discriminatory factors — such as race, gender or marital status — when considering which employees to furlough.

“If an office decides to furlough some, but not all, employees that hold the same job classification or perform the same (or substantially similar) duties, the office should use non-discriminatory factors, such as seniority or area of expertise, in making those decisions,” the committee’s guidance states.

The U.S. Capitol Police will be exempt from the furloughs, and House cafeterias are not likely to see closures because they are run by private contractors, though they could scale back their services if the customer volume decreases.

Congress went through similar motions in 2011 when a spending standoff came to a head. At the time, the government estimated that about 1.2 million federal workers would be furloughed if the shutdown had commenced.

The shutdowns in 1995 and 1996 were spurred by stalled negotiations between then-President Clinton and the Republican-controlled House, led by Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). Two shutdowns occurred; the first lasted five days and the second 21 days.

During the first shutdown, which occurred over Columbus Day weekend, an estimated 800,000 federal employees were furloughed. During the second, 284,000 were furloughed and another 475,000 continued to work without pay, according to an analysis by the Congressional Research Service.

Nearly 370 National Park Service sites were forced to close during those shutdowns, while as many as 30,000 visa applications went unprocessed each day, and about 200,000 U.S. passport applications were forced to wait in the wings.

In past shutdowns, because Washington, D.C.’s budget is subject to congressional approval, the city’s police and fire officials worked without pay, and trash was not collected and libraries were closed.

But on Wednesday, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray declared that the city was preparing not to furlough any of its employees, which flies in the face of federal law. In recent years, D.C. has been fighting fervently for Congress to grant it budget autonomy.