A furloughed federal employee holds a sign on the steps to the U.S. Capitol after the federal government shut down last night, on Capitol Hill in Washington Oct. 1, 2013.Larry Downing/Reuters
Hundreds of thousands of federal employees will have to make do without their paychecks this week if the government remains shuttered, but the lawmakers who caused the government to grind to a halt will continue to collect their salaries.
According to a Congressional Research Service report released last week, "Due to their constitutional responsibilities and a permanent appropriation for congressional pay, members of Congress are not subject to furlough."
That has Jennifer Green, a secretary who schedules surgeries at the Madigan Army Medical Center, located on Joint Base Lewis-McChord right outside of Tacoma, Wash. perplexed, to put it mildly.
"I do my job and I’m losing my money and you’re not doing your job and you are getting paid," Green said. "I don’t think [lawmakers] get it at all. Maybe they feel like they are representing our interests by fighting to hold on to whatever their position is, but we want to work and we want to get paid."
Although Green, an employee of the Department of Defense, was told late yesterday afternoon that she would was an "excepted" employee, she is not happy about having to work without pay until the budget impasse is resolved. She has already been furloughed for six days this year and scaled back her expenses.
There is a particular injustice to the situation, agreed Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, especially when the answer seems so simple.
"Federal employees do feel it is unfair, if they’re not being paid and being sent home and they’re able and willing to work," she said. "Their recommended solution is not to not pay Congress. Their solution is to fund the government and stop the shutdown."
Eddie Eitches, who works for the Department of Housing and Urban Development and serves as the president of its local union, said not only are employees at the agency taking the shutdown hard, but that their clients—mostly low-income, vulnerable Americans—are also suffering.
"We all should be paid, we all should be working. It is a manufactured crisis," he said. "The members of Congress who voted against the [continuing resolution] did an absolutely irresponsible thing."
Certain lawmakers, perhaps sensing the public mood, have offered to give up their salaries during the shutdown.
When Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who embarked on a 21-hour marathon speech to delay the Senate from passing a no-strings-attached funding bill, was asked by the Texas Tribune if he would forgo his salary during a shutdown Friday, he answered, "At least at the current time, I have no intention to do so." Monday evening, he changed his mind and said he would donate his salary to charity in a statement released by his office.
Rep. Gary Peters, D-Mich. also said he would donate his paycheck to charity, while Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala. said she would forgo her salary if a government shutdown affected pay for the U.S. military. Other lawmakers have sponsored legislation that would halt congressional salaries any time there was a shutdown, including Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Texas. Those bills have little chance of passing deadlocked Congress any time soon and are seen as mostly symbolic.
"How is that Republicans who are urging a shutdown of the government are not cosponsors of my bill?" Boxer said last week on the Senate floor. "They want to protect their own pay, they want to protect themselves and their families, but they don’t seem to care about the single mom who works as a custodian in one of our government buildings who is struggling to get by."
Despite the soaring rhetoric, there were signs that life was continuing as usual for inhabitants of Capitol Hill Tuesday afternoon. The sign outside Tortilla Coast, a popular Mexican eatery a few blocks away from Congress, proclaimed: "We’re still open!"
Inside, Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas., hosted a fundraiser at lunchtime, charging donors $5,000 to host, $2,500 to co-host and $1,000 to be a plain supporter, according to an invitation obtained by the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for transparency in government.
A flurry of other fundraisers for congressional campaigns were slowly canceled as details of the events were leaked.
"The optics are terrible," noted Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation. "You have the specter of lawmakers mingling with special interests when the people’s business isn’t getting done."