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Even if government shuts down, most of Congress won't

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 8, 2011

When it comes to coping with a government shutdown, the legislative and executive branches are certainly separate - but they may not be equal.

While much of the federal government could grind to a halt in the coming weeks because Republicans and Democrats in Congress can't agree on spending cuts, Congress itself wouldn't really shut down. As things currently stand, lawmakers would still get their paychecks and many of their aides would still come to work.

That's because each member of Congress has wide latitude in determining which of his or her employees are "essential" and need to stay on the job.

"I would expect my staff would be at post," said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.). "We're here to serve."

Ask House Republicans how the chamber would operate in a government shutdown and they will almost certainly respond that they don't expect one to happen - unless those dastardly Democrats get their way.

"Our goal is to cut spending, not to shut the government down," said Michael Steel, a spokesman for Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). "The only folks talking about a government shutdown are Washington Democrats intent on defending an indefensible status quo."

But, spin aside, key lawmakers are already weighing how Congress could stay in business.

House Administration Committee Chairman Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) said that while his committee has been planning for the possibility of a shutdown, "we haven't discussed it publicly," lest Republicans be accused of wanting one. Committee spokeswoman Salley Wood said the panel "will issue guidance if necessary."

PR strategy - and ideology - could play a role in determining which offices stay open.

"Different members would make different choices depending on their attitude toward the shutdown," said Charles Tiefer, a former House deputy counsel and current law professor at the University of Baltimore. "A congressman who considers the shutdown vital to discipline government spending may make a gesture out of furloughing most of his staff, while a congressman who thinks the shutdown is merely political gamesmanship may keep his staff working."

Congressional support agencies have to make their own determinations. A Library of Congress spokeswoman said roughly 600 of the library's 3,600 employees "are considered necessary to meet our ongoing obligations" in case of a shutdown.

During the two shutdowns in 1995 and 1996, internal debates raged over just which people and activities were considered "essential." The House Administration Committee sent members a letter advising them that essential staff meant "only those whose primary job responsibilities are linked directly to legislative responsibilities."

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