Sep 20, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Congress is already bracing for a government shutdown

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

With 10 days until federal funding expires and no resolution in sight, lawmakers are preparing for a government shutdown that looks increasingly inevitable.

Why it matters: The disruptions from House Republicans' infighting aren't confined to the executive branch. The pay of thousands of congressional employees and constituent services — which are especially vital during a shutdown — would be affected as well.

  • "If anything, constituents are going to need more help if agencies are not there to answer phones and respond to their needs," Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) told Axios.
  • Constituents are beginning to take notice: "Some of our locals have started to ask how is this going to impact services," said one staffer.

Driving the news: Democrats on the House Administration Committee on Wednesday held a members-only briefing about "how to best serve your constituents during a government shutdown," according to an invitation obtained by Axios.

  • Republican staffers said they hadn't yet received such guidance as of Wednesday, but their party may soon follow suit.
  • "Historically the committee has sent formal guidance to offices on what to do during a shutdown," a GOP committee aide told Axios. "Our intention is to do that again at the appropriate time."

What we're hearing: Members and aides in both parties said they are most worried about an increased constituent caseload, with many offices planning to deem their whole staff "essential" to avoid furloughs.

  • "Everyone on my staff is essential," said Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), who pointed to his time as an FBI agent during the 2013 shutdown: "It was devastating. Investigations were shut down because of that."
  • Huffman said his team will be "firing on all cylinders. I'm not concerned that we'll lose any capacity."

Yes, but: There is still a limit to what congressional offices will be able to do to assist constituents with federal agencies undermanned.

  • "The problem is you can take in requests, but it's not like if there's a passport issue there's someone to call," said Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.). "So we can't really do much for our constituents."
  • The State Department's passport backlog, a prominent issue in recent congressional casework, has been a particular concern for many offices.

Zoom in: Congressional offices are also grappling with the question of how to keep employees paid.

  • Many members cited the Congressional Federal Credit Union's interest-free loans for furloughed employees as the main financial lifeline for staff.
  • Some offices are getting creative by providing bonuses in aides' monthly paychecks, which come at the end of September, said one GOP staffer.
  • "Millions of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck ... and that is the same for many junior staffers in D.C.," the staffer said, adding that some are planning to dip into their savings and strategizing about how to stretch their September paycheck.

The big picture: This would be the first government shutdown in four years, leaving many freshman and sophomore lawmakers unfamiliar with the protocols.

  • “Unfortunately, I’ve gone through a Republican shutdown three times,” said Rep. Annie Kuster (D-N.H.), who told Axios she has fielded queries from newer members about the logistics of a shutdown: “There’s a ton of anxiety and a lot of questions.”
  • Offices have been passing around guidance from the 2018-2019 shutdown on procedures for administering their offices and guidance on which Capitol services will be available.
  • Democrats are still waiting for clear guidance from the GOP, with House Administration Committee Ranking Member Joseph Morelle (D-N.Y.) saying he expects them to "rely on precedent from previous [shutdowns]."

The other side: Some members of the right-wing Freedom Caucus projected a sanguine attitude towards the possible impacts of a government shutdown.

  • "We're not focused on a shutdown ... Nobody in my district is calling me about it," said Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), a key figure in the 2013 shutdown while serving as chief of staff for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
  • Rep. Michael Cloud (R-Texas) said that "for the vast majority of the American people, they're not nearly as scared as Washington, D.C."
Go deeper