Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Hello, No One's Home

"Hello, this is Jason," the words leave his mouth, bouncing off the majestic marble of the US Capitol walls.  I was caught off guard.  It was him.

"Congressman," I say, expecting to be greeted by a pleasant but automated voice mail system filtering phone call after phone call into a digital cloud to be sorted and lazily logged to by a bored congressional page in a blue and red stripped tie, dreaming of his first senate race.

I had forgotten that Congressman Jason Chaffetz had casually given me his personal cell phone number 2 years ago while wild fires consumed cheat grass and quaking aspens in his congressional district.  "If you have any questions, just call me," he said after he read off each digit.  As I tapped the numbers into my phone, I joked without looking at him, "you just made the biggest mistake of your life."  We laughed, and he turned and marched towards a podium surrounded by reporters in search of a sound bite.

Chaffetz was the third of three legislators from Utah's congressional delegation, I would talk to on the phone today about the shutdown of the federal government.

We wanted to know which lawmakers would decide to forgo, defer or donate their salaries during the lockout of federal employees.  Dozens, of legislators across the country have vowed not to take a paycheck during the messy battle.  None of the lawmakers are required to turn down the check.  In fact the 27th amendment says congressional pay cannot be increased or decreased unitl the next term of office for representatives.  None-the-less, Chaffetz will defer his check until the mess is cleared up.  Rep. Jim Matheson will do the same. 

As Congressman Matheson waited patiently for me to power up a telephone recorder, he attempted to do an equipment survey, "well, it looks like the phone lines work here in Washington," "Well at least something works there," I joked, and he laughed knowingly.

Both men were friendly and enthusiastic while chatting with me on the phone.  That's probably pretty easy when you are telling a reporter of your voter friendly plans to give up a pay check during the shutdown fiasco.  

My conversation with Senator Mike Lee was a bit more thorny.  Lee is in the thick of the shutdown logjam.  He and Senator Ted Cruz are seen as the guys who turned out the lights on the government last night.

I asked the senator if he intended to give up his pay check like the others in the congressional delegations. "I'm working I'll continue to be paid," he confessed curtly, 

"You know, you could almost take one for the team," I said pressing the senator, explaining to him, that giving up a payday might endear him to the 800,000 federal employees with mortgages and car payments, who don't know if those bills will be paid in the weeks to come.  "when lawmakers are in session," the senator recited with a certain level of matter-of-factness,  "When lawmakers are working they are considered essential they aren't considered expendable " 

I will let you dissect that last statement however you like.

It was difficult to get in touch with others in  Utah's Congressional leadership tonight, many of their offices have been shuttered and their employees told to "stay home."   

If this shutdown continues for too long, Utah senators and congressmen, might have to take a page out of Jason's book, and start answering their own phones, among other things.


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