Lessons From Government Shutdowns in TV History

From Pawnee to the West Wing to Veep-ville, there’s plenty of topical wisdom we can glean about what happens when the funds dry up.

By: Sophie Gilbert, Benjamin Freed

The federal government is in the second day of a crippling shutdown, and the White House and Congress appear no closer to solving their differences. But President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner are looking in the wrong places for policy advice. Government shutdowns happen all the time on politically themed television series, and they always work themselves out with plenty of lessons that are surely adaptable to real-life governing. Here are our favorite nuggets of wisdom from fictional shutdowns on Veep, Parks and Recreation, and The West Wing.


Lesson: Don’t try to negotiate a deal during the middle of your daughter’s 21st birthday party at the National Gallery of Art. Because of course the senator you’re negotiating with will have an allergic reaction to all the flowers and everything will go to hell anyway.

Lesson: Stay away from bears, unless you’re a teeth-grindingly awful and opportunistic congressman. When Veep’s government shutdown furloughs all the park rangers and an idiot with a stick in Michigan is eaten by a bear, it’s bad news bears for everyone except presidential hopeful Governor Chung (Randall Park), who dribbles platitudes at the man’s grieving widow on CNN.

Lesson: Don’t take bathroom breaks. Selina (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), in a fit of petulance, furloughs Gary (Tony Hale) and Mike (Matt Walsh) while Amy is in the ladies’ room.

Lesson: Don’t hire a private contractor to take away the trash piling up outside the Naval Observatory, or you’ll end up stealing bags of it from elsewhere like “the shitty Sopranos,” as Jonah (Timothy Simons) puts it. Thankfully, DC’s trash is still being removed as usual, so we haven’t got to this point just yet, but it’s good to keep in mind for the future.

Lesson: No matter who you are, you’re only as strong as your source. Selina Meyer learns this lesson the hard way when she’s interviewed for a puff piece with Janet Ryland (Allison Janney) which turns out to be more “rough puff,” particularly when POTUS announces the shutdown is finally over and exposes the fact that Selina knows absolutely nothing about what’s going on.

Parks and Recreation

Lesson: Don’t buy a “super-sweet crotch rocket” at 12 percent interest if you’re a federal employee—and if perchance you have, return it.

Lesson: Be a libertarian. When auditor Ben (Adam Scott) tells Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) that Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) needs to be laid off, his response is that she does 95 percent of the department’s work thanks to his “libertarian beliefs.” And yes, there are actually people on Capitol Hill like this (coughTedCruzcough).

Lesson: If you have to slash budgets, do it with a partner whose personality is the exact opposite of yours. Ideally, a combination of sunny (Chris/Rob Lowe) and suicidal (Ben).

Lesson: People like it much better when you provide services, not cuts, as Leslie shows Ben when she stages a rogue Freddy Spaghetti concert in an empty lot. I’m not saying those services have to be a creepy man in a costume singing “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Linguini,” but in many ways, this lesson might be the most valuable one of all in our current situation.

The West Wing

Lesson: Don’t let your primary political advisers get thrown off by a potential Supreme Court fight while you let a couple of guest stars negotiate the budget. (In true West Wing fashion, the shutdown is a two-parter, with the first half wrapped around a plot about a doddering, terminally ill chief justice.)

Lesson: Shut down the government as dramatically as possible for maximum meme-ification. President Josiah Bartlet’s (Martin Sheen) “Then shut it down” moment at the beginning of the episode has lived for years on YouTube, and was shared, tweeted, and embedded relentlessly when the current shutdown started.

Lesson: If it’s your job to stay up all night and end the shutdown, know your coffee shops. In one evening scene, Will (Joshua Malina) asks CJ (Allison Janney) if there is any coffee nearby. She says that because it’s after 7, Starbucks will be closed, but that he should try M.E. Swing’s instead. Bad advice. The shout-out to the real-life DC business is nice, but Swing’s closes at 6. And besides, don’t all frazzled White House staffers get their caffeine fixes at the Caribou Coffee at 17th and I?

Lesson: Publicity stunts work. When the President decides to pay Congress a visit, he gets out of the limo halfway down Pennsylvania Avenue to chat up some tourists put out by the closed museums. And when he finally gets to Capitol Hill, Bartlet dips out before his Republican foes can get themselves organized.

Lesson: Don’t violate the Anti-Deficiency Act. As the shutdown begins, Josh (Bradley Whitford) and Donna (Janel Moloney) strategize about how she’ll keep working through the furlough period, and she even removes office supplies and (presumably) confidential documents from a federal office. But as Donna is a nonessential employee, she and Josh really ought not to be conspiring about how to keep her in the game, even if it is to make sure Social Security checks get printed. (Another West Wing fiction: in the real shutdown, Social Security benefits are being sent out as scheduled.) Josh and Donna’s little scheme seems like a clear-cut violation of the Anti-Deficiency Act, though. Even though they help millions of seniors get their payments, they should also be facing a couple years at Club Fed.