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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A Treasury of Smithsonian Shutdowns

Ronald Wilson Reagan / 1981-1989
from the portfolio Hindsight is Always 20/20,
R. Luke DuBois, 2008, Smithsonian American Art Museum,
negative number 2011.9.38
Closing the Smithsonian during the budget showdown this month was an extraordinary event. Has this ever happened before? If so, how was this shutdown different?  Prior to 1980, if no federal budget was passed, administrations cut non-essential spending such as travel and new hires, and furloughed individual agencies or programs but never shut down the entire government. However, the 1980 balanced budget legislation left little flexibility to keep open essential functions of the government, such as air traffic control and federal prisons.  President Jimmy Carter worried about the effects of a government-wide furlough and secured a judicial ruling that the president did have “leeway to perform essential functions and make the government ‘workable’ until the budget impasse is resolved.”  Smithsonian managers drew up a list of essential personnel that included security officers, zoo keepers, and building engineers, among others. 

True story: on November 23, 1981, for the first time in U.S. history, a one day government-wide furlough was ordered by President Ronald Reagan, with 400,000 of 2.1 million federal employees furloughed. The Smithsonian sent home most staff and closed the museums. Essential staff, such as guards, keepers at the National Zoo, and building engineers stayed onsite, and employees were paid for the furlough day. In October 1984 Reagan furloughed federal workers for another half day. 

In the absence of a final budget, throughout the summer of 1990, SI administration prepared for staff furloughs threatened by a Gramm-Hollings-Rudman Act mandatory 32% sequestration of federal funds in the absence of a final budget. President George Herbert Walker Bush vetoed the budget and closed the federal government from Oct. 6-8, 1990. The impact was softened because this was the Columbus Day weekend. The Smithsonian did close all museums, and the National Park Service closed their parks. Essential employees did remain at work, and many staff simply worked at home.   When President Bush announced that federal workers would not be paid, Congress passed legislation ensuring that they would. Questions were raised as to whether trust employees, such as museum shop staff, should be paid for the days the museums were closed, since federal employees were paid for the furlough days.

New York Times headline, December 16, 1995

Pat Oliphant cartoon of budget battle between Newt Gingrich,
Bob Dole and Bill Clinton, 1994, National Portrait Gallery, NPG.2005.159
The largest government shut-down was yet to come. After a budget impasse between President William Clinton and the Congress led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the government was closed for six days, from Tuesday, November 14 to Sunday, November 19, 1995. Smithsonian non-essential staff were furloughed, and the museums and zoo were closed until a CR was passed on November 19th. In December of 1995, the continuing budget standoff between Clinton and Gingrich led to a government wide shut-down for 21 days from December 16, 1995 to January 5, 1996. Only emergency Smithsonian federal personnel were at work, and most Smithsonian museums were closed to the public, until Saturday, January 6, when they reopened to sparse visitorship. Since the closure was at the height of SI’s holiday tourist season, SI tried to keep at least some museums open. The SI got security officers to take leave without pay from their federal positions and become temporary trust fund security officers. NMAH and NASM were opened from December 26-31, 1995, using volunteers and trust fund employees for a skeleton staff. A temporary Vermeer show at the National Gallery of Art was kept open with private funding. 

Castle after snowstorm of January 1996
Eric Long, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Negative number 96-1825
On Sunday, January 7th, a major blizzard paralyzed the region with more than two feet of snow, and the federal government closed for three more days. Some Smithsonian employees returned to work on Thursday, January 11th, but on Friday, another snowstorm closed government offices again. After four weeks, normal operations resumed on Monday, January 15, 1996. Essential employees had remained on the job, despite the fact that they were not being paid. All federal employees were later paid for those days but had to find alternate sources of income until those paychecks were issued.  The Smithsonian created the Smithsonian Employee Emergency Assistance Fund to provide loans to staff for basic necessities of life.

So the October 2013 government shut-down had several precedents. However, instructions that federal workers could not work voluntarily made the shutdown more complete with all museums and the zoo closed, and all but the most essential functions cancelled.

Pamela Henson, Director, Institutional History Division
Smithsonian Institution Archives

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