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When House Speaker John Boehner starts appealing to President Barack Obama and the Democrats for help, you know the end is nigh. And yet today, the New York Times reports that we are living on the edge: “Just five scheduled legislative days stand between the House and a government shutdown that has loomed for months. As of now, Republican leaders appear to have no idea how to stop it.”
There’s only one thing certain: If the government does shut down, it will afford a surreal scene in Washington not seen since the shutdowns of 1995 and ’96.
Just as it happened then, a government shutdown would prompt the closure of every museum along the National Mall. Smithsonian spokesperson Linda St. Thomas confirms that the Smithsonian as well as the unaffiliated United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the National Gallery of Art would be closed. A small complement of maintenance and security staffers are always on duty—-at night, on Christmas Day—-and some number of them would continue working through a government standoff. There’s no official tally for the number of federal employees who would be reporting for work on the Mall in the event of a shutdown, but St. Thomas describes it as “a very small percentage of the total 6,400 employees.”
That could mean thousands of workers staying home—-and potentially tens of thousands of tourists, visitors, and locals shut out of America’s cultural treasury. From January to August of this year, the Smithsonian Institution museums—-most of them located on or around the Mall—-logged nearly 24 million visits.
The same museums shut down the last time the government was closed during a showdown between a Republican House majority and a Democratic White House (at least, the ones that were open at that time). Those closures took place in the winter: The government closed first for five days (Nov. 15 to 19, 1995) and then for three weeks (Dec. 16, 1995 to Jan. 6, 1996). These dates correspond pretty neatly with big American winter holidays; the second shutdown in particular fell over dates when almost all Americans stop doing their jobs.
That’s not to say that Americans didn’t take notice when the government closed for the holidays—-they most certainly did. Voters punished the Republican Party in the 1998 midterm elections. As Wonkblog’s Ezra Klein points out, Republicans may be courting disaster in 2014 if their most-extreme members follow through with this threat. (Hence House Speaker Boehner‘s across-the-aisle appeal to the left.)
It’s not just the vacations of Washington-bound tourists or the fragile House caucus that could be dusted this fall. A shutdown could affect the federal bids and proposals being assembled all over the Washington area in anticipation of the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.
For many Washingtonians, a shutdown would be merely annoying. So don’t take any chances: Go see the best new National Gallery show now.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery