April 8, 2011 -- The dark shadow of a government shutdown is hanging over Capitol Hill and congressional offices are planning for the worst -- like what to do with the more than one million government-issued BlackBerry cell phones.
Memos are starting to go out informing staffers if they are "essential" or not, and rumors of collection bins for office-issued BlackBerry devices are flying through the hallways.
"We were hopeful maybe it won't happen yesterday, but after this afternoon… with the president's veto threat we are thinking this is going to happen. Reality is setting in. Everyone's preparing now," said one Republican House staffer Thursday.
The House Administration Committee issued a guidance memo Thursday encouraging members to confiscate furloughed employees' BlackBerry phones and laptops to ensure no one breaks the moratorium on performing official duties. Over a million BlackBerry cell phones are used by government employees, according to a spokeswoman for RIM, the company that owns BlackBerry.
"The physical collection does seem a little bit dramatic but certainly the temptation is absolutely there," said the staffer, who asked not to be named because shutdown plans have not been made public yet. "For a lot of us this is our life and to say well, no, we have to put it on hold is very tough. I can't imagine it. 'Just sit back and stay at home' sounds like it would be great, but it's definitely not."
Rep. Thad McCotter, R-Mich., said he will not collect his furloughed staffers' cell phones.
"You don't need to go around like you're disarming them. They are responsible adults. I trust them not to use them," McCotter said.
The committee's guidance was rather vague on which staff members are "essential" and which should be furloughed, saying only employees whose work is necessary to fulfill a member's constitutional responsibilities, safeguard human life or protect property are "essential." "It's like high school down here. Everyone's calling offices saying 'What are you doing? Well, what are you doing?' Everyone wants to look for consistency, but as you know it's up to each office and 'constitutional duties', you can interpret that very widely," the Republican staffer said.
There is no consensus on just how many employees will stay in the event of a shutdown. Some offices have said they will keep their entire staffs. Others, McCotter's office, has said every staff member will be furloughed.
"I'll wind up being the only one left in the office," McCotter said. "It shows that we understand this is a very grave situation. It's not something we take lightly."
Government Shutdown: Who is "Essential"??
House leadership has been unexpectedly quiet on who exactly is "essential," the House staffer said.
"I've heard offices saying they are going to keep their whole staff and others saying just like everyone else, the 800,000 'non-essential' employees don't have luxury of choice. We're going to feel the pain just like the rest of Americans."
In most congressional offices, the chief of staff, a senior legislative director and a senior press secretary will likely make the cut and continue working through a shutdown.
"You can feel the tension. It's what everyone's talking about. It's the giant elephant in the room," the staffer said. "Everyone's trying to keep their cool and get as much done this week before it happens."
A congressional staffer from Colorado said the biggest stress right now is whether employees will be paid during a shutdown. Members of Congress will continue to receive their paychecks During the 1995 shutdown, no one was paid until Congress passed a budget including a provision to provide back pay to all furloughed employees. There is no guarantee that will happen this year.
By law members of Congress will continue to get paid during a shutdown, but many are calling for lawmakers' paychecks to be suspended if they cannot reach a budget deal by Friday.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., circulated a letter in the Senate pledging to "forego my federal salary until we reach an agreement."
"I will donate my salary to charity or return it to the Treasury until the government works again," Manchin wrote.
Michele Bachmann, R- Minn., said she will also donate her pay.
"Unfortunately, current law prevents our military men and women from receiving their paycheck on time if government services are interrupted. Because of this discrepancy between the pay of our troops and Members of Congress, I will personally be donating my pay to a non-profit organization serving our military families," she said, in a statement Thursday.
Both the House and the Senate have passed legislation to suspend lawmakers pay during a shutdown, but in bills that have not passed the other chamber.