CBS News: Does Congress get paid during a government shutdown?

CBS NEWS, CAITLIN YILEK, STEFAN BECKET

The looming possibility of a government shutdown had hundreds of thousands of federal employees worried that they could go without pay if Congress had failed to reach a deal to approve or extend funding for their agencies.

However, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on Saturday reached a last-minute compromise to keep the federal government running and avoid a costly shutdown. A 45-day bipartisan stopgap spending bill passed both the House and Senate with just hours to spare before Saturday’s midnight deadline, and went to President Biden’s desk for his signature. 

The bill will fund the government through Nov. 17. 

Lawmakers needed to approve more spending by Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year, or they would have risked a costly shutdown that could have had wide-ranging impacts on federal services

In the weeks leading up to the bill’s passage, Republicans in control of the House had been divided about how to move forward, with a vocal hard-right contingent fiercely opposing a short-term deal to extend funding, while talks about broader spending levels continued.

In the event funding were to have lapsed, federal employees in critical positions would be required to stay on the job. Many others would be forced to stay home. Both groups would have their paychecks delayed until Congress approves more spending. Most federal contractors might not get paid at all.

The shutdown threat led to questions about what it would mean for lawmakers themselves — and their paychecks. Here are some answers:

Will members of Congress get paid if there’s a government shutdown?

The short answer is yes. Lawmakers will continue to draw a paycheck even if they haven’t reached a deal to fund the government.

The reason is because of how their pay is treated under the Constitution and federal law. Article I, Section 6 of the Constitution states: “The Senators and Representatives shall receive a Compensation for their Services, to be ascertained by Law, and paid out of the Treasury of the United States.” This means they must get paid whether or not other parts of the government are funded.

Pursuant to that section, members’ pay rate is set by a process established by federal law, and the 27th Amendment says any law to change their pay can’t take effect until after the next congressional election. Lawmakers’ pay has been funded by a permanent appropriation since 1983, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report, meaning funding for their pay doesn’t need to be renewed annually.

Most members earn a salary of $174,000 per year, a rate that has not changed since 2009. The speaker of the House earns $223,500, while the president pro tempore of the Senate and the party leaders in both chambers make $193,400.

When it comes to other federal entities, the law that governs how they must act during a lapse in funding is known as the Antideficiency Act. In short, it says that federal agencies generally can’t spend more money than Congress has approved. This means many agencies must furlough employees — that is, tell them to stay home — if they haven’t received funding.

There are some exceptions. Some programs, like Social Security and Medicare, have permanent funding, and operations continue as normal. Employees whose jobs are necessary to protect life and property must also stay on the job. Those whose roles are authorized by other laws can keep working, as can officials with constitutional responsibilities.

When it comes to congressional staffers, each office determines which employees are deemed essential and thus allowed to keep working during a shutdown. Most are expected to keep all or nearly all of their employees on board, though the staffers won’t be paid until more funding is approved.

A shutdown’s impact on congressional activities could be substantial, depending on which employees continue to work and which are sent home. House Republicans recently launched an impeachment inquiry investigating President Biden and his family’s business dealings. Some have worried that the probe could grind to a halt if executive branch employees who field their requests for information aren’t on the job.

“There’s no question at all that the administration will not answer any questions and use a shutdown as an excuse to say they sent home the people who would answer,” Rep. Darrell Issa, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, told Reuters. “So can we ask the questions? Yes. Are they going to deliver witnesses that they have control over, or answers? Probably not.”

Does the president get paid during a shutdown?

Yes. The Constitution prohibits reducing the president’s salary while in office, “thus effectively guaranteeing the president of compensation regardless of any shutdown action,” according to a Congressional Research Service report from 2018.

The president earns $400,000 annually, an amount set by Congress in 2001. 

His aides and staffers, however, are subject to the furlough requirements under the Antideficiency Act, meaning those in nonessential positions could be told to stay home until Congress authorizes more funding. In past shutdowns, presidents have furloughed many executive branch employees to increase pressure on Congress to take action.

Do other federal employees get paid during a shutdown?

Federal employees, whether they remain on the job or are furloughed, won’t get paid while the government is shut down.

However, they will receive back pay once funding is restored to their agency. In prior shutdowns, Congress had to approve back pay for employees, but a 2019 law made it mandatory. Contractors — who were responsible for carrying out nearly $700 billion worth of government work in the last fiscal year — are not guaranteed back pay.

Each agency determines what positions are considered essential and what are not. The Office of Management and Budget has directed agencies to notify employees no later than two business days before a lapse in funding about their work and pay status.

Some members of Congress have pointed out the apparent hypocrisy of lawmakers continuing to be paid while other federal employees miss out on their checks. Members of both parties have offered different proposals that would prevent Congress from getting paid during shutdowns, but none have attracted widespread support, and the 27th Amendment forbids any immediate change.

“It’s pretty straightforward. The basic element of our job is to govern,” said Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia. “If we are unable to fund the government, at the very least we shouldn’t be getting paid.”

How would a government shutdown have played out without a deal?

Spending authority for the current fiscal year would have expired on Sept. 30 without a deal. Any agency that did not have new funding approved by Congress and signed into law by the president by midnight on Sept. 30 would have shut down. 

Executive branch agencies cannot begin to implement their shutdown contingency plans until they receive the order from the director of the Office of Management and Budget.

In the event of a shutdown, furloughed employees are allowed to come to work to implement their agency’s contingency plan before they’re sent away. 

“Ordinarily, furloughed employees should take no more than three or four hours to provide necessary notices and contact information, secure their files, complete time and attendance records, pay invoices for obligations incurred prior to the lapse, and otherwise prepare to preserve their work,” guidance from the OMB in 2021 said. 

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