Need to reach your senator during shutdown? Good luck with that

Rob HotakainenMcClatchy Washington Bureau

Victoria Kippes, office manager of the First United Methodist Church of Kennewick, planned to write an item for this Sunday’s church bulletin after she heard that the U.S. House of Representatives had voted to restore funding for a nutrition program for poor women and children.

But when she called to find out if the Senate would follow suit, no one would answer the phone at the offices of either of her two Democratic senators.

“It’s definitely frustrating. . . . We’re trying to get our congregation to donate to the food bank,” said Kippes.

Members of Congress from Washington state are finding all sorts of ways to deal with the first shutdown of the U.S. government in 17 years, leaving puzzled constituents to figure out why some offices are operating and some aren’t.

Spokesmen for both Democratic Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray said the decisions to close their offices were due to legal advice they received. Cantwell offers callers a recorded message that includes an apology and a promise that someone would respond at some point in the future.

Two Democratic House freshmen are taking far different approaches. Rep. Derek Kilmer has extended his office hours and not furloughed a single employee, while Rep. Denny Heck’s office says it has fielded thousands of phone calls and emails from constituents and that the congressman is posting regular updates on Facebook, Twitter and his web site.

Similarly, Bryan Thomas, a spokesman for Democratic Rep. Rick Larsen, said Larsen’s office remains “fully staffed” during the shutdown.

“Congress is responsible for ending this shutdown, and Rep. Larsen’s constituents expect him to be working hard toward that end,” Thomas said. “He and his staff will be.”

Republican Rep. Doc Hastings, who heads the House Natural Resources Committee, has opted for a middle ground, temporarily losing many of his staff, but still managing to conduct business during normal hours.

“While staff is limited, phones are being answered,” said Neal Kirby, a Hastings spokesman.

It’s all very confusing for constituents such as Kippes, who was happy that she could talk to a real person when she called Hastings’ office on Tuesday.

“They answered their phones, so I don’t know why the senators’ offices aren’t answering their phones,” she said.

The issue is clearly sensitive on Capitol Hill, with most offices declining to say exactly how many employees have been furloughed.

“Most of the congressman’s staff are still at work, but not all,” said Phil Gardner, Heck’s spokesman.

He noted that like most other federal employees, those who are working are doing so without pay during the shutdown.

The different approaches in staffing are partly the result of flexibility that members of Congress have in determining which employees stay and go when the government shuts down. It’s all based on whether or not the bosses think the workers are “essential.”

In Kilmer’s office, all employees have been deemed “essential,” allowing his operation to continue with no furloughs. With the federal government ranking as the largest employer in his district, Kilmer is keeping his offices in Tacoma and Bremerton open until 7 p.m. each day, making sure casework still gets done. Kilmer said he wanted “to go the extra mile to help out” during the shutdown.

“All of our staff will be working and available to constituents during the shutdown,” said Stephen Carter, Kilmer’s spokesman.

Republican Rep. Dave Reichert also has not furloughed any of his employees and his office plans to take phone calls throughout the shutdown, said his spokeswoman, Leighanna Driftmier.

Democratic Rep. Adam Smith said his staff is holding “mobile office hours” throughout his district to make sure his office is accessible during the shutdown.

“My staff and I are available to answer phone calls, emails, hold meetings, and assist anyone with issues they may be having,” he said.

Cantwell spokesman Jared Leopold said “the vast majority” of the senator’s staff has been furloughed during the shutdown and the senator does not have the staff in place to answer phones.

“Unfortunately, our state offices have been closed,” Leopold said. “A skeletal staff remains in Washington, D.C., as Sen. Cantwell works with her Republican and Democratic colleagues to end this unnecessary crisis.”

Even if no one’s there to answer the phones, most offices say they’re still accepting constituent emails and letters and value the contact.

In a message she recorded herself, Murray assures callers that all messages will be checked frequently.

“Thank you for calling my office,” Murray says. “I appreciate hearing from you.”

On Cantwell’s website, she tells constituents that her office will “promptly reply to all correspondence” – as soon as the government resumes normal operations. Her office’s recorded message offers a similar reply:

“Please leave a message and we’ll respond as soon as we’re able.”

By Rob Hotakainen
McClatchy Washington Bureau