WASHINGTON — As the government shutdown heads toward its second week, Maine residents may feel inclined to call the offices of delegation members to share their views on the situation.
What they hear on the other end of the line will depend on whom they call, reflecting the disjointed and nonspecific guidance given to senators and House members about how congressional offices are affected by the shutdown.
Members of Congress were given broad discretion when it came to staffing levels during the shutdown, and that discretion led to widely different interpretations throughout the Capitol. While some members opted to keep everyone working – albeit without pay – others sent all but a handful of staffers home.
As the Committee on House Administration put it in a guidance memo on the shutdown, each member of Congress is considered an “employing authority” and that employing authorities “make the determination of who within their staff is an essential employee and who should be furloughed.”
Democratic Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud opted to remain largely at full staff in Washington and at district offices in Maine, although some interns were affected.
“What we’re finding is that everybody is still busy,” said Willy Ritch, spokesman for Pingree, who represents the 1st District. “We are still getting calls from people wondering, ‘Am I going to get my Social Security checks?’ ”
“It’s critical that we keep offices open due to the increased call volume and the need to still help Mainers dealing with federal agencies, especially during the difficulties they may face during a shutdown,” said Michaud spokesman Ed Gilman. “If this shutdown drags on, our office may be one of the few accessible conduits that constituents have if they need help with a federal agency.”
Across the Capitol, both Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King were working with “skeletal” staffs, although the two senators had different approaches.
Collins, a Republican, opted to continue manning the phones in her six district offices in Maine, although with minimal staff. Her office in Washington was reduced to a little more than a handful of employees, down from more than 20, according to spokesman Kevin Kelley.
“We are just a skeletal crew answering phones,” Kelley said of the Capitol Hill offices. “People may have to leave a message but we will do the best we can to respond to emergency situations.”
King, an independent, had a more conservative interpretation of the guidance senators received and furloughed all of his staff in Maine, while eight people were taking turns manning the Washington office. King Chief of Staff Kay Rand said staffers were monitoring phone messages and responding, when possible.
“The fact of the matter is that the federal agencies that we deal with on behalf of constituents are closed,” Rand said earlier in the week.
DELEGATION GIVING UP PAYCHECKS
Like most federal employees, congressional staff members are not getting paid during the shutdown regardless of whether they are at work or at home.
Meanwhile, the lawmakers at the root of the shutdown will still receive paychecks. That’s because congressional salaries are stipulated by law and are not part of the traditional budgeting process. In fact, the 27th Amendment of the Constitution states that a sitting Congress cannot change its own pay; instead, any changes take effect after the next election.
All four members of Maine’s congressional delegation said last week that they plan to donate their paychecks to charity or to needy individuals if furloughed federal employees are not repaid for working during the shutdown. They are among more than 130 members of Congress who have agreed to give up their pay during the shutdown, according to a running tally maintained by The Washington Post.
Members of Congress earn $174,000 a year, although members of leadership receive more. That equates to nearly $3,350 a week before taxes for rank-and-file members of the House and Senate.
On Saturday, a bill to retroactively pay furloughed employees passed the House and appeared likely to pass the Senate as well.
MAINE IMPLICATIONS IN COURT CASE?
On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case on campaign contribution limits that some believe could have implications for states with their own donation caps, including Maine.
The case, McCutcheon v. the Federal Election Commission, involves the $123,200 cumulative two-year cap that individuals are allowed to donate to federal candidates as well as political parties and political action committees.
The lead plaintiff in the case is Shaun McCutcheon, a wealthy Alabama businessman who argues he should be able to give to as many federal candidates and political parties as he wants to as long as he stays within the caps on donations to those individual entities. McCutcheon is often described as a Republican activist.
McCutcheon, the Republican National Committee and other critics of the law contend that a separate cap of $2,600 per federal candidate per election and other restrictions on donations to political parties per election is sufficient to guard against a donor buying undue influence. They also continue the argument that an aggregate cap is an unconstitutional restriction on free speech. Defenders of the limits say restrictions help prevent corruption.
The case has been described as “the next Citizens United,” the 2010 ruling that opened the door for unlimited “independent expenditures” by corporations and labor union contributions. And like Citizens United, some believe the McCutcheon case could affect state laws.
Maine is one of about a dozen states that impose their own aggregate or cumulative limits on campaign contributions. The cap in Maine is $25,000 for all campaign contributions.
If the Supreme Court continues down the path it followed on Citizens United and overturns the federal cap on total contributions, it could also eventually scuttle aggregate caps at the state level, some predict.
“Relatively few donors presently give the maximum allowed under the two-year federal limit. But if the far more modest limits imposed by state laws are overturned, the implications for state elections could be quite dramatic,” wrote Larry Norton and Ron Jacobs, co-editors of the Political Law Briefing blog and co-chairmen of the Venable law firm’s political law group. Norton is also former general counsel at the Federal Election Commission.
OVERHEARD ON THE HILL
“This junior senator from the state of Mane is one of the most dignified, experienced senators that this body has ever had,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said of Sen. Angus King on Saturday during a floor speech amid the shutdown debate.
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at: