Shutdown time, and the living on Capitol Hill is slow

Michael DoyleMcClatchy Newspapers

No California Central Valley lawmaker wants the federal government shut down.

Just ask them.

A liberal Democrat calls it “unacceptable.” A conservative Republican says it “should not have happened.”

Surely we can reason together, many insist.

Nonetheless, the members of Congress on whose watch the shutdown occurred began coping with the consequences Tuesday. Most had temporarily smaller staffs. Some had fewer visitors. At least one, Republican Rep. Jeff Denham, is giving up his paycheck.

But none has a clue as to when or how the first federal government shutdown in 17 years will end.

“It’s a very sad time for our country,” said Democratic Rep. Jim Costa. “We ought to be acting as adults.”

Day One of the shutdown confronted lawmakers with an immediate management decision of how many people to furlough as non-essential. Given considerable leeway by House administrators, the Californians took markedly different approaches.

Some, including Costa and Democratic Rep. Doris Matsui, opted to keep their entire Washington and California district staffs employed. Some, like Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, declared a handful of employees as non-essential and sent them home, potentially for the duration. Others, like freshman Republican Rep. David Valadao opted to cut daily staffing by about half, while making every employee take several days off each week.

“Everyone on staff is going to make a little sacrifice,” Valadao’s chief of staff, Tal Eslick, said Tuesday. “Our goal is to have the minimum impact on services.”

Denham’s office on the seventh floor of the Longworth House Office Building was locked for a time on Tuesday afternoon, while staff was in and out. Denham took some matters into his own hands. Chief of Staff Jason Larrabee said Tuesday that the congressman asked the House chief administrative officer to withhold his pay until the shutdown is over.

Members of Congress are paid $174,000 a year, or the equivalent of $3,346 a week.

Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein both shut down most of their California operations and curtailed Washington staff activities. Boxer’s D.C. office was open on an appointment-only basis.

Staffers who stayed on the job Tuesday faced a trickier time getting to work. At 9 a.m., Costa Press Secretary Jessica Kahanek said, the line of people trying to enter the Longworth building stretched around two blocks. Once inside, hallways seemed unusually quiet for a Tuesday afternoon when the House was in session.

At one point, the loudest noise came from a group of California farmers and others waiting outside a closed committee room for a promised briefing. It was the farmers’ misfortune to have a long-scheduled lobbying trip coincide with the shutdown and shrinkage of staff.

“The spin they put on it is that this is an historic moment in U.S. history,” Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League said with a laugh.

Turning serious, Bedwell acknowledged that “the shutdown is going to suck all the oxygen out of the room” and make it harder for lawmakers to focus on immigration, farm bills and other conventional priorities.

Some federal work was immediately postponed; other business proceeded as planned. The Fish and Wildlife Service canceled a Wednesday hearing scheduled for Sacramento, which was to have gathered public comments on listing the Mexican wolf as an endangered subspecies in the Southwest and delisting the gray wolf elsewhere. At the same time, the U.S. Coast Guard on Tuesday proceeded with a Federal Register notice on setting up a safety zone for Old Mormon Slough near Stockton.

For now, on the votes that matter, every Central Valley member of the House is marching in lockstep with his or her party. None has yet broken ranks, though Nunes hinted at some of his own party’s internal divisions when he told reporters this week that some hard-core Republicans resembled “lemmings with suicide vests.” The vivid quote quickly went viral.

Mostly, the rhetoric remains pointed toward the other guy. For GOP Rep. Tom McClintock, the problem is the “absolute intransigence” of the Democratic-controlled Senate. Matsui, on the other hand, pinned the blame on the Republican House leadership that “has chosen to put partisan politics over the welfare of our country and the American public.”

By Michael Doyle
McClatchy Washington Bureau