"'Who knows?' is the answer," said Ignacio Sanchez, a partner at DLA Piper who co-chairs the firm's government affairs practice group. "Anyone who says it definitively would be lying."
As Congress bickered over funding proposals last weekend, lobbyists at Washington firms informed clients about what could happen, explained the arcane rules of the appropriations process and laid out possible outcomes of the fight, said Kevin O'Neill, deputy chairman of Patton Boggs' public policy group.
"They were getting updates from us the same way you'd get an update from a football game," O'Neill said. "Everybody sort of has an avalanche of issues impacted by this." Patton Boggs attorneys are advising clients on delays in funding, programs, government contracts and legal actions, O'Neill said.
Several lobbyists say they have been telling clients the shutdown might end with a deal that allows both political parties to save face—forming a foundation, perhaps, to work on moving legislation forward. But a seemingly more likely at this point is a deal that raises the bitterness even higher, and could poison the well for some types of legislation for the rest of 2013 and the election year of 2014, the lobbyists said.
"What it does make harder is for people to understand how you can navigate their issue through a minefield like this and get them to their objective," O'Neill said. The response to clients, he said, is "getting expectations set, and explaining why getting involved now will benefit them in the long run."
Many lobbying activities for larger law firms with broader government affairs practices carry on, even if Congress or the government does not. They still have to submit comments for rulemaking, respond to any subpoenas from Congressional investigators and file administrative petitions.
That includes a shift from legislative work to regulatory work, as the Obama administration tries to move policies through the regulatory process and avoid the blocked legislative path, O'Neill said.
Former Representative James Walsh (R-N.Y.), a government affairs counselor at K&L Gates who was on the House Appropriations Committee during his 20 years in Congress, said it's really hard to say what will happen. He called the current situation on Capitol Hill "a pause."
"It could drag out, but I think as time elapses, pressure builds for a solution and the longer we go the higher the pressure," Walsh said. "These are adults. They know the way out of this, it’s just the conditions aren’t there quite yet."
"I think you have to just watch and see for a while," Walsh said.
Sanchez said one client is still planning to go a Capitol Hill hearing. Another client, he said, was flying to Washington for several meetings. Sanchez said he told the clients: "Be nimble because those meetings might not happen now."
Activity at congressional offices depended on the number of employees each member of Congress determined were essential, and therefore were exempted from furloughs. Some committees noted that hearings this week may have to be postponed, including a hearing on the Navy Yard shooting and examining government clearances and background checks.
"If the President signs a continuing resolution providing funding for the federal government, the Subcommittee on Government Operations may hold its scheduled hearing Wednesday – 'Examining the Federal Response to Marijuana Legislation,'" a press note states. "However, in the absence of a funding agreement the hearing will be postponed."
Senator Tom Carper (D-Del.) announced that the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee would be closed and no updates will be posted on the committee’s website. Carper's state offices are closed and the vast majority of constituent services will be suspended through the shutdown, a spokeswoman said.
Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) posted a detailed note on the front page of his website to tell constituents that he could not get phone calls or mail during the shutdown. Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) closed his offices.