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The Surreal Limbo of Being a Member of Congress Who Can’t Get Sworn In

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No phones. No emails. No power.

Three days after the newly elected members of the House expected to be sworn in, they are still waiting, as the battle for Speaker of the House rages on.

With Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy unable to secure the support of a majority of the chamber, the House is unable to do basic business. The responsibility of swearing in members falls to the Speaker; without a Speaker, 434 lawmakers are left in a surreal limbo of being elected to represent their districts but having no authority or resources to do so.

“This is not at all how I thought the first few days were going to go,” said Becca Balint, a Democrat who in November became the first woman to be elected by Vermont voters to Congress, on Thursday.

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New members and their staff are particularly hamstrung. While returning members already have their infrastructure in place and are trying to continue to work throughout the chaos, the few staff that freshman House members have hired don’t even have email addresses.

“We were talking this morning, how desperately we want to be doing constituent services for our folks back home, but many of us don’t have our phone lines or email lines up and running,” Balint said.

“My technology isn’t fully set up,” added Rep.-elect Andrea Salinas, Democrat of Oregon. “I don’t even think we actually have water in our office because I need to be official in order to get the water system set up.”

Technically, the House doesn’t even exist. It is not a continuous body, which means that every two years it must reconstitute itself. Even re-elected lawmakers are not technically members of the House until they are sworn in.

That also means House members can’t be assigned to any committees, which are formally established through House resolutions. New members are holding off on hiring their full teams as they wait for those committee assignments to be finalized.

Balint says that members are paid in a lump sum delivered at the beginning of February, but that she was told by Democratic leadership in a caucus meeting on Thursday that staff payments will begin to be affected if the situation continues through next Friday, Jan. 13. Exactly which workers in the Capitol are in danger of not getting paid has been a constant source of discussion and debate at the Capitol. Guidance issued last week confirmed that staffers who work on committees may not receive a paycheck if the stalemate drags on, a circumstance first reported by Politico. Many committee staffers are also enrolled in a student loan payment repayment program run by the House. Those loan repayments are set to end if the House does not have a rules package by that date.

It does not appear that the staff for House members’ personal offices are in danger of losing out on pay, but the historic nature of the drawn-out Speaker’s battle has left many of those staffers anxious, even as they continue to work through the long, unpredictable hours of votes.

“Staff, just across jurisdictions, are really worried,” says a staffer with the Congressional Workers Union, who described the situation as a “debacle.” “Whether or not people get paid, pay their bills … is all on the line.”

Even returning members are running into roadblocks serving their constituents. Republican Rep. Don Bacon, a McCarthy supporter from Nebraska, tweeted Thursday that an agency had informed his office that it could not communicate with his staff about active casework because he is not yet a member of Congress. When Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, a New York Republican, saw the tweet, she immediately asked her staff if they were running into the same problems and heard they’d gotten a similar communication from the IRS.

The fact that no one has been sworn in means returning members who had security clearances during the last Congress have now lost those clearances. Without clearance, no House members can hold or participate in sensitive meetings.

House Convenes For The 118th Congress On Capitol Hill
Kent Nishimura—Los Angeles Times/Getty ImagesRep. Mike Gallagher nominates Rep. Kevin McCarthy for House Speaker on the floor of the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol Building on Jan. 4, 2023.

“Don Bacon and I were supposed to be meeting with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs in the SCIF here to talk about matters in the Indo-Pacific,” said Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin Wednesday evening, referring to the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility where lawmakers meet to discuss classified information with national security officials. “But I’m informed by House security that technically, I don’t have a clearance.”

“I’m a member of the Intel Committee, I’m on the Armed Services Committee, and I can’t meet in the SCIF to conduct essential business,” he continued. “My point is, we have work to do that we can’t do right now.”

Gallagher’s staff is working to reschedule the meeting once he is sworn in and his security clearance becomes active, his office said. But in a gaggle with reporters on Thursday, Gallagher wondered about what would happen if a national emergency arises before members are sworn in. “Can Congress declare war right now?” he asked. “Are we able to do anything?”

The inability to get started on any House business or even less urgent items has become increasingly frustrating for House Republicans who anticipated a triumphant rise into the majority.

“The conservative agenda is one that will accomplish the mission for the American people the best,” Republican Rep. Dan Crenshaw of Texas, a McCarthy supporter, told reporters on Wednesday. “But we can’t start that agenda until we start governing.”

The delay has also scrambled plans this week for dozens of family members of the newly elected House members, many of whom had traveled to Washington for a swearing in they expected to take place on Tuesday. Some extended hotel stays through the week, hoping to still witness that lump-in-your-throat moment in person.

Randall Kaplan was in the House gallery on Wednesday intent on waiting out the Speaker fight so he could be there for his wife, Rep. Kathy Manning, to be sworn in for her second term. When the North Carolina Democrat was first elected in 2020, the pandemic meant her swearing in was unusually lowkey. Days later, she donned a gas mask in the House gallery during the Jan. 6 insurrection.

“Last time, because of COVID, there was no pomp and circumstance,” Kaplan said on Wednesday. “We were hoping that she was going to be sworn in yesterday.” He made clear that he wasn’t going to miss his wife’s swearing-in ceremony this time, even if the leadership fight goes on for weeks.

“I will be here every day until it happens,” he said.

—With reporting by Jasmine Aguilera/Washington

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