Things to Do

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.

Maybe the White House could take a few shutdown lessons from Veep’s Selina Meyer. Photograph by Bill Gray.

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
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

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

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.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.