The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When the government shut down 25 years ago, things got ugly

Video from Jan. 11, 1996, showed federal workers returning to work after a government shutdown. (Video: Reuters)
3 min

A version of this story was originally published on Jan. 20, 2018.

A Democrat in the White House and Republicans in Congress can’t overcome their fundamental disagreements over government spending. They each think they can score a few political points by taking a stand. A shutdown looms.

America, we’ve been here before.

Congress races to avert shutdown as Senate readies vote on pared-back bill

Long before this week’s showdown between President Biden and Senate Republicans — and long before President Donald Trump and Congress failed to avert a government shutdown in December 2018 — a budgetary standoff between House Speaker Newt Gingrich and President Bill Clinton ground the government to a halt for four weeks. It ushered in a new era of zero-sum, no-compromise politics in Washington — though it would be another quarter-century before the partisanship would lead to an insurrection.

The vast federal workforce was furloughed from Dec. 16, 1995, to Jan. 6, 1996, the longest failure of basic governmental function in the history of the republic — until the Trump shutdown broke the record 13 years later.

The closure under Clinton came just a month after another five-day shutdown, and was further extended by a historic pair of winter storms that closed the government again on the very day Washington’s civil servants were finally going back to work. In all, the winter of ’95-’96 was a frozen mess for federal functionality.

The government’s spending authority expired on Dec. 15, a Saturday, so the full brunt of the shutdown wasn’t felt until 280,000 workers stayed home on Monday. (The previous shutdown had idled about 800,000 workers, but Congress had funded several more departments in the meantime). As the political sniping continued up and down Pennsylvania Avenue, the parks were dark, offices locked and the pulse of government went into winter hibernation.

Tourism took some of the biggest hits. Tour groups, with no Smithsonian museums to visit, canceled in droves. Taxi drivers cruised empty for hours. Hotels and restaurants cut staff.

“I want those congressmen to come down here and explain to our employees who we have to lay off why they’re going to have to pick between paying the rent and buying presents this Christmas,” Mike Dickens, president of a Bethesda-based hotel company, told The Washington Post.

And it wasn’t just Washington. By week three, the more than 1,600 hospitality workers outside of Yosemite National Park had been laid off.

Desperate, some museums turned to private funds to unlock the doors, even briefly. The National Gallery of Art tapped its Fund for International Exchange to pay 25 guards it needed to open a blockbuster Vermeer exhibit for a week, to the delight of tourists and cabin-bound government workers alike.

Then came the cruel climatic twist, just as the White House and Congress finally reached a deal. Clinton, Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole (R-Kan.) came to terms on Jan. 6, 1996, a Saturday. The snow began falling that afternoon. By the time the Blizzard of ’96 (“the Furlough Storm”) and the Alberta clipper that followed it were over, two feet of snow had fallen on the Washington region, and federal workers were idled for another five days.

By then tempers were shredded. Therapists reported an uptick in crisis calls from clients, many of them idled civil servants. A man in Frederick, finding someone parked in the space he had shoveled, used a garden hose to entomb the offending car in ice. At Rocky’s Video in Rockville, Md., a customer punched out a clerk for not having a copy of “The Brady Bunch” in stock.

Federal workers finally came gingerly back, walking between heaps of snow and confronting mountains of paperwork.

The State Department faced a backlog of 200,000 passport applications; Education Department staffers had more than 100,000 loans and grants to process, and Veterans Affairs workers needed to install 60,000 gravestones.

Everyone got busy. Not that they had been completely idle: Nine months later, Washington hospitals reported a spike in “furlough babies.”

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