By Emily Goodin - 10/03/13 10:00 AM EDT
Lawmakers with extra time on their hands since the government shut down have taken to performing menial tasks, from answering phones to opening constituent mail, as the funding impasse continues.
With most committee hearings canceled and offices operating with skeletal staffs, some members of Congress have even begun leading constituents on tours of the Capitol.
“Constituents come here, they’re expecting to have tours,” she said. “They can’t go to the Smithsonian. There’s a lot of things they can’t do, but we can still do our best to make sure they experience the Capitol.”
Speier was one of many lawmakers spotted leading groups throughout the Capitol complex.
Tour groups are allowed as long as there are less than 10 people and a lawmaker is present, according to shutdown guidelines posted by the House Administration Committee.
Reps. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) and Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.), who both sit on the House Armed Services Committee, ran into Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Tuesday when they were giving a tour to Army and Marine captains.
Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) was also spotted leading constituents around the Capitol.
He said he didn’t want them “to come to Washington and not get their tours.”
With staffers being furloughed, a lot of constituents’ calls are going unanswered and mail is going unopened, so a few lawmakers have pitched in to help out.
It’s also a way for them to earn their paychecks.
Lawmakers continue to get paid during the shutdown, while staffers do not. In a gesture of solidarity, more than 100 members have vowed to return the shutdown portions of their salary or give it to charity, according to The Washington Post.
Colorado Reps. Cory Gardner (R) and Scott Tipton (R) took turns answering phones in their offices on Wednesday afternoon.
“I think people appreciated it,” Gardner said. “The bottom line is constituents need to be heard and when you do it yourself, they know they are being heard.”
The second-term lawmaker said a lot of his constituents were surprised to hear him answering the phone. But with about 40 percent of his staff furloughed, the extra hands were needed.
Gardner said no one shouted at him. He says he heard “everything from ‘what’s going on,’ to ‘this is ridiculous’ to ‘you guys have to stand to make a difference in Washington because the country can’t continue to run like this.’ ”
Lawmakers’ days are typically scheduled down to the minute with committee hearings, fundraising duties and meetings.
But with the government shutdown, several committee hearings were canceled and executive branch employees a member might meet with — say on Social Security or veterans’ issues — have been furloughed.
That’s left a hole in their schedule.
“I would much rather be doing what we did today, which is answering the phones and talking to people directly,” said Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), who spent part of Wednesday answering phones and opening mail from constituents.
“We’re doing rolling furloughs in our office and so we have, in our D.C. office at least, interns are taking a lot of the phone calls.”
O’Rourke, who is donating his shutdown pay to veterans’ service organizations in El Paso, pointed out that his district, with its military base and border with Mexico, has 22,000 federal employees. Many were furloughed when the government shut down.
“I’m talking to a lot of concerned veterans, concerned active-duty military, military spouses, border agents,” he said, noting that he’s hearing “a lot of anger at Congress.”
Fundraisers are being canceled, too.
“We canceled our fundraisers for the week. Figured it’s better not to be doing those types of activities. We’ll stick to doing the work,” Hudson said.
Several lawmakers took active steps to demonstrate they were staying busy.
Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.), along with many House members, tweeted or released photos of themselves on the phone with constituents.
“Hard work,” Heller wrote on his Twitter account, “but enjoyed hearing Nevadans’ opinions.”
Selim Koru and Jeremy Herb contributed.