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Hill staff: 'A little in the dark' about who works during a shutdown

From NBC's Shawna Thomas and Carrie Dann
While all federal agencies are required to write and maintain shutdown plans, very few of those plans are available to the general public. 

Congressional staffers – the group of federal employees closest to the lawmakers who could create or avoid a shutdown – have more information than most, but some say that there are still a lot of unanswered questions for Capitol Hill aides.

The House Administration Committee offers a new website to help explain how congressional offices should navigate a shutdown.  Salley Wood, communications director for the committee, said the site -- which can be found here -- went live on Tuesday when the committee issued its initial guidance to congressional offices.  

But while that information is more than many other workers have, aides say there is still a lot of uncertainty about what a shutdown might mean for the thousands of federal employees who work on the Hill.

"There's no question that House Admin is in a tough spot, but the information has not been as accessible as we’d like,” said one Democratic aide. “There may be more information going to Chiefs of Staff, but most staff members feel a little in the dark." 

For some aides, they may be “in the dark” because their individual offices are keeping them there. It is up to each office to decide, based on a three-pronged set of criteria, who is essential and non-essential.  

Wood said that the committee did not "instruct any timing" for the offices to make those staffing decisions, although they recommended that offices give employees ample notice of the possibility of a furlough. 

Per the federal code, “essential” congressional staffers:

1. perform activities "that entail or directly support Members’ performance of their constitutional responsibilities (including activities that entail the protection of the House’s and Members’ constitutional prerogatives)."

2.  perform activities that entail the safe-guarding of human life;

3.  perform activities that entail the protection of property.

According to committee guidance, that would definitely mean furloughs for the staff at the House Gift Shop, guides at the Capitol Visitors Center, the Botanic Gardens and the Flag Office.

But the first of the three standards is fairly broad, leading some members of Congress to say that they expect to keep most or all of their staff members at work even if there is a shutdown.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., said yesterday, "I believe that especially during a shutdown that every member of my staff is going to be essential to answer all of the questions." 

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., tweeted Wednesday, “If gov't shuts down, we won't. I believe those who choose to come into work fall under my Constitutional arm. Accountability must continue.”

Another unanswered question for employees: whether or not furloughed staff members can count on back pay.

During past government shutdowns, all furloughed workers did eventually receive delayed paychecks, but nothing in current law guarantees that they will this time around if a shutdown occurs.

That’s a point made sharply in a newly-published document from the Administration Committee explaining how offices should plan on navigating a shutdown.

The document reads:

Historically, when the federal government's funding has lapsed, the subsequent spending authority (whether

Continuing Resolution or an enacted appropriations bill) has provided for retroactive payment to employees.

This, however, is not guaranteed. The exact details of retroactive payment (if any is authorized) will depend

on the language of a continuing resolution or enacted appropriations bill. The normal payroll cycle may be

disrupted by a lapse in appropriations and checks may be issued at irregular times.

Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., announced late Thursday that he is introducing legislation to guarantee that federal workers get back pay in the event of a shutdown.  But there's no word on whether the legislation, which he is cosponsoring with fellow northern Virginian Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., will get a vote on the House floor.

NBC's Luke Russert contributed.