On the Hill, during shutdown, essential is in the eye of the officeholder

  • Article by: COREY MITCHELL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 12, 2013 - 10:44 PM
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FILE - The morning sun illuminates clouds behind the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Monday, Sept. 30, 2013.

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– In Minnesota, the government shutdown has left national parks closed, government agencies understaffed and residents worried about the fate of their federal benefits.

But in some of D.C.’s Capitol Hill offices, not much has changed — from a work standpoint, anyway. At least half of Minnesota’s House members have not furloughed any aides because of the shutdown. While the aides work on, however, their pay is on hiatus. More on that later.

Unlike the executive branch, where the Office of Management and Budget issued specific rules about which workers are essential and which must be furloughed, members of Congress decide how many of their staffers will work during the shutdown. And there’s been no definitive guidance from the either party’s leadership, the House Rules Committee or the Senate’s chief counsel of employment.

So when given the option, Reps. Keith Ellison, Betty McCollum, Rick Nolan and Tim Walz — all Democrats — decided to furlough no one. The staff of Rep. Collin Peterson, another Democrat, is also nearly intact. Just one of his 17 aides is on furlough. That person already had plans to be out of the country, which, “under the rules means that [they] needed to be furloughed,” spokeswoman Liz Friedlander said.

“Congressman Peterson believes that with all the confusion it’s important to have staff available,” Friedlander added.

The fully staffed lawmakers say they need to respond to constituent calls and visits. It’s a sentiment several Democratic press secretaries echoed.

“Congressman Nolan remains fully committed to meeting the needs of his constituents and wants all hands on deck to be sure he fulfills his constitutional responsibilities to the people of the Eighth District,” said spokesman Steve Johnson. “He’ll continue to evaluate things as we move forward.”

Congressional aides on the job are working without a guarantee of back pay, for now. Some members of Congress simply assume their staff will be paid retroactively as part of an eventual budget deal, so they might as well show up for work. The House approved a back-pay bill last weekend and it could clear the Senate as negotiations on the budget continue.

While the House Democrats have kept their staffs working, Minnesota’s two senators, both Democrats, and three House Republicans have taken a different approach.

Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken have furloughed roughly two-thirds of their staffs. They’ve kept their offices open while some Senate colleagues have shuttered theirs. Aides say both senators kept just enough staff on hand to help carry out Senate duties.

Among the House Republicans, Rep. John Kline has furloughed seven of his 17 staff members. Rep. Erik Paulsen has eight aides off work, and Rep. Michele Bachmann furloughed seven, several of whom she has since recalled. Paulsen and Bachmann did not report the sizes of their staffs.

“Constituent services continue, and serving Minnesota continues to be Erik’s No. 1 priority,” said Paulsen spokesman Philip Minardi.

Bachmann spokesman Dan Kotman said: “We are still continuing to answer phones, work on legislation and provide constituent services on behalf of Minnesotans.”

Just how many staff members are required to fulfill those duties remains open to interpretation.

As for the Congress members and their own compensation, Bachmann, Kline, McCollum, Paulsen and Peterson have asked that their pay be withheld during the shutdown. Klobuchar, Franken and Walz have pledged to donate their salaries to charities, and Nolan plans to donate a “considerable share” of his. Ellison said that “if handing back pay would help the furloughed workers, I would find a way to survive without pay, but of course it won’t.”

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