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Congress doesn’t shut down during a shutdown

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    The U.S. Capitol is illuminated at night as Congress continues to work to avert a government shutdown on Capitol Hill Thursday, April 7, 2011 in Washington.(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON >> Senators would have to push their own elevator buttons. House members would go without their free gym. Food on Capitol Hill would be sparse. And the lawmakers’ restrooms? Perhaps not as fresh.

Congress would feel the pinch of a government shutdown, but nowhere near the pain that would be inflicted on the massive federal workforce it is supposed to govern.

Unlike the roughly 800,000 federal workers who would be affected, lawmakers get wide latitude deciding who is essential and who’s not in the fiefdoms of their own offices and committees. They also get to choose whether to give up their own pay during a shutdown — an option not afforded the furloughed.

“How does that make any sense?” said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who added that he will forgo a paycheck for the length of a budget impasse.

The Constitution forbids lawmakers from changing their compensation or the president’s in midterm, which kicks into the political ether proposed legislation to force a pay holiday on Congress.

Rank-and-file House members and senators make $174,000 a year, with the leaders of each party making more. President Barack Obama’s annual salary is $400,000.

Many members of Congress already donate all or some of their pay to charity, but those swept into office last year by the populist, tea party-tinged wave of the midterm elections are especially sensitive to the inconsistency of getting paid — more than most Americans — for a job not done.

“I’ll find a way to give it back,” said Colorado Rep. Cory Gardner, a member of the Republican class of freshman that handed control of the House to the GOP. Gardner said he gave up his pay in the state Legislature under similar circumstances. “We aren’t different than anybody else.”

The Capitol Hill workforce is the size of a small city, tens of thousands of people who protect, feed, shuttle, schedule, advise, clean up after and otherwise support the 535 members of Congress. During a shutdown, deciding who and what services are essential generally falls to the lawmakers, with advice from Congress’ experts on the subject.  

The House Administration Committee, for example, recommended that lawmakers use three criteria when deciding staffing. Employees whose jobs “are associated with constitutional responsibilities, the protection of human life or the protection of property” should be considered essential, the committee said.

Three-fourths of the Architect of the Capitol’s 2,600-person workforce would stay home, severely curtailing the many services it provides, according to spokeswoman Eva Malecki. That includes limited food service and even restroom cleaning — both the public facilities and those in the lawmakers’ offices.

It also means limited response to emergency service calls for help on plumbing, electrical, elevator or other problems, she said.

Expect a police force big enough to keep the campus secure but severely scaled back, said Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer. That means one door open per building both for lawmakers, their staffs and the tourists Congress is obligated to admit when the legislature is in session. But since the Capitol Visitor Center would be closed, tour guidance would be mostly up to the lawmakers themselves.

And if they feel like escaping to the comfort of, say, the members-only balcony just off the House floor? Lawmakers might have to find an officer with a key to unlock the door, according to knowledgeable officials who demanded anonymity to be candid.

Members would have to line up for everything from elevators to news conferences, since there would only be one act of televised grandstanding allowed at a time, Gainer said.

And food? Sparse enough to constitute “a mandatory diet,” he quipped.

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