Iowa delegation approach staffing differently during the shutdown

Constituents having to deal with full voicemail inboxes, empty offices

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March 28, 2014 | 9:19 pm

Want to tell your senator or representative what you think about the government shutdown?

That could take a while.

Earlier this week, Elizabeth Girard, 30, of Marion, had questions about the shutdown directed to her congressional representative. She called first district Rep. Bruce Braley, a Democrat.

The voice mail said the office is closed due to the shutdown and directed her to leave a message, she said. But the mailbox was full.

"I guess the biggest frustration is, I can't even call my congressman," Girard said. "What else do you do?"

Depending who and where you call, you may or may not get a hold of someone at the offices for Iowa's delegation.

Staff for members of Congress around the country are operating on skeleton crews while meanwhile fielding calls from constituents.

The partial government shutdown has created a balancing act of keeping elected officials accessible and accountable to their constituents, while adhering to a law that only allows for so-called "essential personnel" to continue getting federal payments.

Offices for Iowa's delegation are being staffed at varying levels.

The spectrum ranges from Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat, who has closed all his Iowa and Washington D.C., offices and majority of staff furloughed, to Rep. Dave Loebsack, a Democrat for Iowa's first district, who is keeping all his offices open.

"I think in a legal sense, members of Congress have a right to maintain the full actions of their staffs," said Jim Leach, who served for 30 years in the U.S. House of Representatives for Iowa and now is a visiting law professor at University of Iowa. "They are in effect taking a discretionary moral stand to have some office sacrifice.

 "It's all a matter of individual discretion. I suspect there will be adjustments over time, in partial measure to constituent concerns in needing to use the office." 

Here's how Iowa's other members of Congress are staffing their offices:

  • Jeff Giertz, the communications director for Braley, said in an email that approximately 75 percent of the staff has been furloughed on a rotating basis. Offices will be open on an alternating basis.
  • Jill Gerber, with Sen. Charles Grassley's office, said they are operating with about 30 percent of the staff and offices are closed in Council Bluffs, Davenport, Sioux City and Waterloo.
  • Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa 3rd district, has furloughed 75 percent of his staff, and are only keeping the Des Moines and Washington, D.C., offices open.
  • Calls were answered by staff for Rep. Steve King,  R-Iowa 4th district, at his Washington D.C., Spencer and Mason City offices, but no one picked up at his offices in Ames, Fort Dodge and Sioux City. Press secretary Sarah Wells said all offices are open, but they are reevaluating on a day-to-day basis. 

Leach said he doesn't recall staffing being an issue during the 1995-96 shutdown, but said he wouldn't criticize how any congressman or woman are handling it today.

Congress is operating under the threat of a law from 1870 called the Antideficiency Act, which requires only "essential personnel"  be kept on during a lapse in appropriations.

"They gave us pretty clear guidance on what staff should be furloughed and what should not be," James Carstensen, Latham's chief of staff, said of information from the House Committee on Administration.

Those include:

  • Activities that support the lawmakers' "constitutional responsibilities" or constitutional prerogatives." This can include work on bills, committees, communications pertaining to bills or committees, among others.
  • Activities that entail the safe-guarding of human life.
  • Activities that entail the protection of property.

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