“We Need to Get a Deal Done”: Anxious Senate Support Staff Braces For Shutdown

By Nick Gass

Apr 7, 2011 1:20pm

ABC News’ Matthew Jaffe reports:

“I think for the good of the country we need to get a deal done and move past it.”

-          Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer

With Congress stuck at yet another impasse on the budget talks and the government set to shut down in 35 hours, many Senate support staffers are now learning that if a shutdown occurs, they will not be needed on Capitol Hill.

Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer oversees nearly 1,000 employees responsible for Senate operations, but today he has been busy telling around 750 of them that they should not come to work in the event of a shutdown – even though lawmakers would likely still be working towards a deal to resume funding.

“It’s causing a lot of anxiety with employees up here,” Gainer told ABC News in a phone interview today. “We run the Employee Assistance program on the Senate side and the number of people seeking assistance has gone through the roof. They want to talk to someone, they’re worried. We work very hard to encourage people to minimize stress, to reduce stress, but this is causing a lot of stress.”

“It’s an unusual message to send to someone: I’m sending you home on Monday, you won’t be paid, but I want you to work very hard today so that I can support others who will get paid and stay.”

So what responsibilities do these 750 employees have on the Hill?

“95 percent of it is directly related to supporting the Senate, so for instance the TV studios, the broadcasting of the floor, the doorkeepers who regulate who goes on and off the floor, our IT shop that controls the IT systems here and in the 450 offices around the United States. We’re responsible for the phones and the telephone operators, the post office, the delivery of mail, the ID shop, parking regulations and parking access. So all of that is adversely impacted and we’ll keep skeleton staffs here, some just 9 to 5, others 24/7 because depending on the type of job and the hours you have to have someone here,” Gainer said.

“And then there are the light ones that people like to make fun of – I’m responsible for the barber shop and the beauty shop, all those are for-profit organizations but we will close those down. The posters that members use on the floor that are printed by our print shop – it’ll be few and far between on those. Printing in general, mailing. I’m kind of like the city manager up here, so that’ll all be adversely affected.”

That could turn the Capitol into a logistical mess if it ends up being the only federal building in Washington open to the public during a shutdown.

“I don’t think many buildings that are open to the public will be open to the public. In the Capitol we have a responsibility to allow people to have access to their members and we have a responsibility to ensure that when the Senate is in session, people can come to the galleries. Now there are a whole series of galleries which can probably hold a few hundred people at a time and might in a busy season like this, but we will only keep one gallery open. There’ll only be one entrance to go through, rather than the entrance in the Capitol Visitors Center. But we’ll get people in.”

“We’re going to do what we need to do to let the members legislate and let the public have some access.”

Even though people such as elevator operators, tech support staff, barbers, and tour guides wouldn’t be working during a shutdown, Capitol Police would remain, only they would not have to work overtime.  

“As chairman of the Police Board, the Capitol Police will have sufficient staff on hand to prevent or meet any threats, but again, with the reduced number of doors opening, reduced number of committees, it allows them to avoid overtime which they use a lot in order to provide services. On any given week, they might spend between $500,000 and $700,000 the way the program is set up now.”

For now, all Gainer can do is hope lawmakers reach an agreement, but prepare for what happens if they don’t.

“I hope they’re successful,” he said, “but they haven’t asked me to intervene in the negotiations.”

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