As Washington careens toward yet another budget-induced shutdown, the usual suspects are being rounded up.

According to Jared Golden, Maine’s maverick Democratic Congressman, the solution is clear: “The only way to avert a shutdown is to come to the table to negotiate a bipartisan agreement.”

He’s wrong of course, but perhaps can be forgiven – perhaps – because he’s been in Washington only since 2019.

In truth, the sole way a shutdown can be averted is for House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to finally get control of his caucus. As of this writing, that appears exceedingly unlikely.

The facts are simple. Only Republicans have ever shut down a federal or state government, and only Republicans think it’s a good idea.

Newt Gingrich, the long-ago House speaker (1995-98) pioneered the technique, which he believed would give him mastery over the erratic Bill Clinton, following up by impeaching the young president over the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal.


When the move backfired – numerous GOP senators voted to acquit and Republicans lost five House seats in the 1998 midterms – Gingrich resigned and left Congress for good, though he still natters away as a commentator.

Gingrich, however, was not the first Republican shutdown artist. That title must go to Maine’s own Charlie Webster, who entered the 1991 legislative session bent on dethroning longtime Democratic House Speaker John Martin by any means necessary.

Webster led a small band of 13 Republican senators in a chamber of 35 – one more than one-third – but just enough to allow him to block adoption of a biennial budget under Maine’s peculiar “two-thirds rule.” Gov. John McKernan played along, even though the issue was worker’s compensation and not the budget itself.

Maine endured a far more wrenching shutdown than the federal government. Phones went unanswered, and state liquor stores – the only source of Fourth of July booze – were closed, to the outrage of well-heeled tourists.

By the time Gingrich struck, it was mainly federal office workers who were furloughed. No Social Security checks were delayed; it’s likely to be so this time too.

Since Gingrich’s exit, no Republican House speaker has been fully in control of his caucus. His immediate successor, Dennis Hastert, was a figurehead.


The real power in the land was Tom DeLay, a brilliant maneuverer from Texas who was majority whip, then majority leader, and came up with such outrageous schemes as “re-redistricting” the Texas legislature when Republicans finally won a majority there in 2002, even though Democrats had already done the customary redistricting two years earlier.

Courts upheld the move, finding nothing in the Texas constitution to prevent redistricting more often than the required 10 years. The heavily gerrymandered Republican maps have prevailed ever since.

DeLay finally had to resign from Congress after being indicted and convicted of campaign money laundering. He was sentenced to three years, but never served a day after convincing state appeals court judges there was “insufficient evidence.” Ah, politics.

Hastert was followed by Democrat Nancy Pelosi, who was followed by John Boehner, the last Republican speaker with a foot in the “traditional” party. Boehner followed the usual practice of making budget deals with Democrats, which earned him scorn and hatred from the “Freedom Caucus,” which goes by various names but still runs the show.

Boehner gave up, resigning mid-session in 2015, to be succeeded by Paul Ryan, a faux intellectual. Ryan’s much admired budget plan, for instance, required all discretionary spending to be zeroed out within two decades – but the budget would balance without raising taxes!

Ryan made a quiet exit by declining to run for reelection.


Pelosi came back after the Democrats regained control in 2018, when Golden won his seat, and she made a remarkably graceful departure in 2022 in full possession of her powers – the first speaker to voluntarily step down in decades while still serving.

She’s tarnished that legacy by announcing that, though now an 83-year-old rank-and-filer, she’s nonetheless running for reelection. Turns out she’s House Democrats’ fundraiser-in-chief, and no one’s allowed to retire from that post.

Then there’s Kevin McCarthy, whose puppy-like eagerness for the job resulted in endless ballots and equally endless concessions to his caucus’s crazy faction.

No one seems to remember the budget targets McCarthy agreed to in the debt ceiling deal the extremists now insist he violate. The last, fragile hope is a continuing resolution to somehow return government to normalcy, if not exactly to normal.

Even so, nothing will really change until November 2024. At that point, voters need to ask themselves:

Is this what you want to happen, over and over? If so, vote Republican.

If not, perhaps you could ask Jared Golden what to do.

Douglas Rooks has been a Maine editor, columnist and reporter since 1984. His new book, “Calm Command: U.S. Chief Justice Melville Fuller in His Times, 1888-1910,” will be published later this year. He welcomes comment at

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