Staffers' pay, BlackBerrys under threat

Hundreds of Capitol Hill employees will go without pay and could have to turn in their BlackBerrys if Congress fails to fund the government past Friday.

The odds of a government shutdown increased Tuesday as both parties appeared unwilling to cede to the other side’s demands on spending cuts.

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In the case of a shutdown, each member and committee office will decide which employee is “essential” and who will be furloughed, according to guidelines issued by the Committee on House Administration on Tuesday.

Those not subject to a furlough include President Obama, members of Congress, federal appointees and certain federal and legislative employees, according to an analysis from the Congressional Research Service (CRS).

Any furloughed “nonessential” employee will not be paid but will receive uninterrupted health benefits, the Administration Committee said.

Those furloughed employees have been directed not to perform official duties and might be required to turn in their BlackBerrys and laptops.

Obama and members of Congress will be paid during the shutdown, however.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has proposed legislation to stop that. The bill has passed the Senate but not the House.

The U.S. Capitol Police will be exempt from furlough, but nonessential offices facing closure include the Capitol Visitor Center, House Gift Shop and Botanic Gardens.

House cafeterias are operated by private contractor and will likely not see closures, said committee spokeswoman Salley Wood. Those services could instead be cut back as customer volume is expected to decrease.

According to an April 5 “Dear Colleague” letter sent to congressional staff from committee Chairman Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), “all other House personnel shall be placed in a furlough status by the appropriate employing authority until appropriations are made available.”


The committee even has a definition for an essential employee: someone “whose primary job responsibilities are directly related to constitutional responsibilities, related to the protection of human life, or related to the protection of property.” 

Spokesmen for the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration did not respond to a request for comment on the Senate’s plans for Capitol Hill staff should the government shut down.

According to Senate Historian Don Ritchie, the impending government shutdown could have a much greater impact on employees than the last one in the mid-1990s, when President Clinton and the 104th Congress engaged in extended budget policy negotiations.

Two shutdowns occurred, one lasting five days and the other 21. 

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 the CRS analysis.

The analysis also listed the fallout from the two shutdowns, including the closure of 368 National Park Service sites; an approximate 20,000 to 30,000 applications for visas reportedly going unprocessed each day; about 200,000 U.S. applications for passports reportedly going unprocessed; and multiple services for veterans being curtailed, ranging from health and welfare to finance and travel.

But, in the ’90s, it “wasn’t a government-wide shutdown; it didn’t involve every agency,” Ritchie said. “This one could conceivably impact the whole government.”

Obama hosted congressional leaders at the White House on Tuesday, and vowed to bring them back every day until there was a deal.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) proposed a seven-day funding measure that would keep the government going another week. It includes $12 billion in spending cuts and keeps the Defense Department operating through September, but Democrats have rejected that plan.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday that the party has reached the end of its rope on discretionary spending cuts. 

“We have been willing to do what is fair in ratcheting down very, very hard on programs dealing with domestic discretionary spending,” Reid said. “We can’t go any more.”

Michael O’Brien and Mike Lillis contributed.