Political Brinkmanship and Public History

I spent a wonderful week on North Carolina’s Crystal Coast soaking in the last bit of summer. I consider this trip as essential to my mental health and productivity. I tried to ignore the rumbles of a government shutdown throughout the week, but now I must address this possibility since a shutdown will severely limit my project. Shortly after midnight last night, the House of Representatives passed a measure that would keep the government running only if the Affordable Care Act is delayed for a year. This takes us one step closer to a government shutdown on October 1, the start of the government’s fiscal year. The Washington Post published an article last week about “everything you need to know how a government shutdown works.” I have a few additional thoughts.

I have been meaning to write a post about doing public history with the federal government during sequestration because my residency project has certainly been shaped by this tense bureaucratic climate. That post will come later in the year, but this topic of a government shutdown requires immediate attention.

One of my strengths is scenario planning. I try to stay a few steps ahead in the game by thinking out different ways a particular situation might shake out. Now, I must think about how a government shutdown will impact my residency project and what I can do to keep it moving.

I had big things planned this first week of October. On Monday, I planned to move into my park quarters. I hoped to spend that afternoon and Tuesday going through park records and doing some fieldwork. Wednesday and Thursday I planned to dive into records at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. If the government shuts down, the park will close and many of my main repositories will be inaccessible. I will likely be kicked out of my park quarters, although I am not entirely sure. I can forget about using a park vehicle for research trips.

My access to personnel will be cut, too. My understanding is that furloughed employees will not be able to answer emails or phone calls. So I will not have access to my park contact or residency mentor, at least in any kind of official capacity. Any meetings that I hoped to have with park or regional staff will be delayed indefinitely.

Fortunately, Middle Tennessee State University pays my stipend and I have a place to stay if I get kicked out of park quarters so I don’t have to worry about being homeless and not having an income. I can still travel to some of the smaller libraries and historical societies that are not federally funded. However, I will have to drive an hour and a half on my own dime. I can do this for a few days, but a longer government shutdown would be devastating for my project.

I sincerely hope that this political brinkmanship will be resolved by October 1st. My project is but a tiny grain of sand in comparison to all the other programs and projects that will be impacted. My thoughts go out to those federal employees with families and service men and women that face furloughs. I hope that all my scenario planning will not be needed, but this issue serves as a reminder of how public historians must keep a pulse on larger political forces and be flexible in their project planning.

Now, how should I pack tonight? For a day? Or a week? Hmmm….


A wild horse grazes on Shackleford Banks, the southern-most barrier island of Cape Lookout National Seashore. A government shutdown will close all the national parks. Photographed by author, September 26, 2013.

Update: Just ran across article by National Parks Traveler, which includes .pdf of the NPS  plan for a shutdown.

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