mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Does the Government Shutdown Matter at All?


Now that the day has finally come, the media is excitedly enumerating all the ways the government shutdown will disrupt our lives. Yet if lists like these truly represent the worst the shutdown has to offer, it may not be so bad. Some early fall vacations to national parks will be disrupted, aspiring gun owners may need to wait a few weeks for their permits, and business owners may see some delays in their government loans. Meanwhile, military personnel will continue to be paid, taxes will still be collected, and mail will be delivered on time.

And if history is any guide, it may not have much of a political impact, either. Gallup has looked into its polling data surrounding the 1995 government shutdown, and found that aside from a small blip at the height of the crisis, politicians’ approval ratings had returned to their pre-shutdown levels after only four months:

Before the U.S. government shutdown on Nov. 14, 1995, President Clinton’s job approval stood at 52%. It dipped to 42% in an early January Gallup survey, but bounced back up to 52% by mid-March. His favorable rating took even less of a hit, falling just five percentage points to 54% in mid-January 1996 — after the second shutdown ended — from 59% in early November. And, his favorability climbed back up to 58% in mid-March 1996.

Americans’ views of the U.S. speaker of the House at the time, Newt Gingrich, are a bit more complicated. While Gingrich’s job approval suffered some in the short term, his favorability rating actually ticked up slightly just after the shutdown ended. But by February and March of 1996, Americans’ views of Gingrich were right back to where they were prior to the budget battle — relatively low — and stayed that way.

If a similar pattern is repeated this time around, the shutdown will be far less than the massive political catastrophe many have predicted. We’ve always viewed the shutdown showdown more as political theater than a substantive battle with real repercussions, and nothing in these reports has caused us to change that assessment.

But this doesn’t mean that DC is in the clear. This kind of deadlock on the upcoming debt ceiling issue could wreak havoc on the world economy. Let’s hope Congress can put aside the theatrics when the stakes are more substantial.

Features Icon
show comments
  • wigwag

    Professor Mead’s thesis is that the Government shutdown hardly matters.

    I wonder what Ken Cuccinelli thinks the shutdown is doing to his already longshot chance of being elected as the next Governor of Virginia..

    • Corlyss

      Of course it’s going to be the hottest topic inside the Beltway. If I were still working, I’d be glued to C-SPAN 24/7 following the ins and outs of the deals, just like I was in 1995. Nobody else cares that much.

  • Corlyss

    “Yet if lists like these truly represent the worst the shutdown has to offer, it may not be so bad.”

    Shades of the sequestration. The forces of evil (Republicans) hosted a reduction in the growth of spending, and nobody noticed. It was a lose-lose for everyone. Republicans won a major political achievement, hyped by the Dems as the end of civilized life as we know it, and who knows anything happened at all if you’re not in the DoD nexus? The Republicans didn’t get any credit for their achievement. The Dems didn’t suffer any for their typical lying Chicken Little clucking. When you consider that when the laid off govt workers return to their jobs, the Congress will reimburse them for theoretically missed pay. It’s typical of the grand kabuki so popular inside the Beltway and so inconsequential elsewhere. It’s all political theater, nothing more.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service