It's got to be a real bummer to be a staffer for a member of Congress advocating a government shutdown right now. Lawmakers are just 100 hours away from the funding deadline, and if Democrats and the GOP don't come to compromise, "non-essential" Hill staffers will have to turn in their BlackBerrys, iPhones, and laptops and head home. Staffers will be placed on furlough and may or may not receive backpay when they return.
Worse, one measure being debated in the funding fight — cutting or delaying Obamacare — is also a debate over a pay cut for those staffers. Sen. David Vitter is pursuing an amendment that would strip lawmakers and Hill staffers of federal contributions for their health insurance. That would essentially be a big pay cut, as Republican Sen. Susan Collins told Politico last week:
I am concerned that Sen. Vitter's application of that principle may not be as he intends when it comes to staff... Because it appears the way his amendment is drafted that lower-paid staffers will qualify for neither the subsidy that anyone else making that kind of money would receive on through the exchange — nor will they get the employers’ subsidy. And that concerns me.
(The average congressional staff assistant makes $29,900 a year.) By insisting on a vote on his amendment, Vitter's refusing to reach any kind of compromise with Democrats. Sen. Ted Cruz supports the amendment, and wants to expand it to strip all federal employees of contributions. According to Cruz,
Right now federal employees earn substantially more than the private sector does. I don’t think there is any entitlement to take our tax dollars and live in a privileged condition as a federal employee.
Something tells us Cruz aides won't feel so privileged when they're out of work. If Vitter and Cruz don't give up the Obamacare fight, their non-essential staffers will be sent home next week (though, funnily enough, they'll still receive health benefits).
So what's an "essential" staffer? The House Administration Committee advised Congress that an essential staffer is someone who's primary job is "directly related to constitutional responsibilities, the protection of human life, or the protection of property." Many, many staffers do not fall into that category. For historical context, the shutdowns of 1995 and 1996 put hundreds of thousands of employees on furlough. The Hill reports:
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 . . .
During shutdown, furloughed employees won't have access to their phones and other devices, to keep them from working. Crucially, there's no guarantee that they'll get backpay once the government starts operating again.
Lawmakers, on the other hand, will continue to get paid if they shut down the government. Even their widows are still cashing in.