The Unintended Consequences of a Government Shutdown

What happens this week won't end this week. The reverberations of a shutdown will be felt for years to come.
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Last week, I talked about how congressional Republicans interpreted the budget shutdown of 1995-96 and how it colored negotiations with the White House for years thereafter. Today, I want to talk about another important consequence of that shutdown—the fact that it indirectly led to President Clinton's impeachment and affected the elections of 1998 and 2000.

How did all of that happen? One of the immediate impacts of a federal government shutdown is that most government workers in political positions are immediately sent home. I was a writer in the White House Office of Correspondence in 1995—an entry-level position situated in what is now called the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next door to the White House. When the shutdown hit, my colleagues and I, along with employees several pay grades above us, were notified that we were "non-essential personnel." We were not allowed to show up for work. There was no money to pay us, and to have employees work without pay is, well, slavery. So we went home. (We would ultimately get our salaries for that time period, but it was not clear then whether that would happen, so my spending was pretty lean for a while.)

The revelation of the Clinton affair gave Gingrich another opportunity to destroy his rival. Gingrich vowed to press impeachment and saw it as the key to further Republican gains.

So who was left in the White House? Basically, high-level employees (department directors, deputies, and so forth) and interns. Suddenly, the interns, who were usually doing pretty low-level work related to copiers and coffee, were placed in positions of considerable authority and had access to places (like the West Wing) and people (like the president) they normally didn't. All of the buffers between the interns and the principals were gone. Among these interns was one Monica Lewinsky. So, yes, it's reasonable to say that she never would have exchanged anything other than a handshake with President Clinton if not for that shutdown.

All of this, at least initially, seemed like good news for House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He was, after all, probably the person most directly responsible for the shutdown. (Yes, it takes two sides to have negotiations break down, but Gingrich seems to have pushed this as a strategy, even over the objections of other Republican leaders, believing he could get Clinton to back down.) In the wake of the shutdown, it appeared that Gingrich had taken a serious beating and his star was fading. But then the revelation of the Clinton affair gave Gingrich another opportunity to destroy his rival. Gingrich vowed to press impeachment and saw it as the key to further Republican gains in the 1998 mid-term elections. Those dreams fizzled, too, when Clinton became the first president in generations to see his party gain House seats in a mid-term election, in part because of perceived Republican overreaction to Clinton's dalliances. Gingrich resigned as Speaker of the House soon after that election.

Clinton was still impeached in 1999, of course, and the memories of that experience weighed over the 2000 election cycle. Even though Clinton wrapped up his second term with relatively high approval ratings, Democratic nominee Al Gore reportedly felt he needed to distance himself from Clinton in part because of the associations with scandal. It is no accident that Gore's chosen running mate, Joe Lieberman, was one of the harshest of Clinton's Democratic critics within the Congress. And voter disgust with Clinton, even if not reflected in performance approval ratings, may well have caused Gore to significantly under-perform relative to the economy.

So might Gore have won in 2000 if not for the shutdown five years earlier? Well, now we're getting down a serious alt-history rabbit hole. But if you buy that, then the shutdown ended up leading to our responses to 9/11, the Iraq War ... it just keeps going.