10/16/2013 11:35 am ET Updated Dec 16, 2013

Bulldozing the White House

Like many of Americans, I've been watching the relentless, unfolding drama of the government shutdown with a mixture of anger and disbelief--a feeling that only festers as the 17th of October advances on the calendar. Unlike many people, however, I've added a far more unlikely emotion as I survey this (only the latest) example of governmental inaction: Relief--a perverse sense of relief.

And why that? It's not because I hold with those who've concluded that a hobbled government is somehow an earned and necessary corrective for the costs of progressive domestic policy. It's because I know that, while the damage from this lingering shutdown is bad (and, if there's a debt default, sure to be very bad), there was a time in our history that congressional ineptitude--and, specifically, the blind insistence on curbing Federal spending even in the face of ludicrous consequences--very nearly had results even more preposterous than the ones we're witnessing now.

Like what? Well, would you believe, like bulldozing the White House to build a cheaper one?

It almost happened--a somehow forgotten bit of history I unearthed while doing the research for my book, The Hidden White House: Harry Truman and the Reconstruction of America's Most Famous Residence.

Back in 1949, President Truman, having been forced to move out of the White House when it nearly collapsed on him, approached Congress for funding to save the ailing structure. Weakened by decades of neglect, dangerous overloading, and lacking adequate foundations for the sandy ground it had been built on some 150 years earlier, the White House stood empty and braced by a forest of steel scaffolds. But its fate was not sealed entirely. A team of architects and engineers convened by the president had determined that the mansion could be saved. They'd even drawn up a plan that would save it. All it needed was a $5.4 million appropriation from Congress.

Can you guess where this story's going?

Five and a half million dollars wasn't chump change in 1949, but it was a reasonable bill for a critical piece of work. (The sum converts to a little over $51 million in today's dollars--roughly the cost of a single C-27J cargo plane.) The Senate, realizing the importance of the expenditure even during a weak domestic economy, approved the funding immediately. Then the House of Representatives got involved.

Enter Clarence Cannon, a budget hawk from Missouri (and a Democrat, by the way) who, as chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, hated the idea of government spending so much he was known to punch adversaries in the mouth right on the House floor. National Heritage be damned, Cannon declared that the old heap wasn't worth the cost of repairing, and insisted it would be more economically feasible to build a nice new White House instead. Cannon wasn't as crazy as he sounded; within days, the Washington Post editorial page took up his cause.

Fortunately, most Americans did not agree with Cannon--not unlike the way many people today disagree with the manner in which extreme, ideological partisanship is holding up worthy projects (and holding up the paychecks of worthy federal employees) right now. Cannon was probably aware that he lacked sufficient popular backing for his position, but that didn't hold him back. A handful of his colleagues--helped, no doubt, by the culture of bureaucratic incompetence that characterized Congress then and does still--managed to create a lovely mess.

Truman's simple funding request ran the gauntlet of two protracted and inconclusive committee hearings, deadlocked two appropriations bills, and devolved into a nasty and pointless fight in the media. While the White House teetered, literally, on the verge of collapse, Congress wasted 64 days arguing and postulating. Then, having accomplished exactly nothing, it finally gave up. (Months later, a joint commission appointed by the legislative and executive branches finally secured the $5.4 million, just in time to save the White House.)

The circumstances of the current deadlock on the Hill are, many will reasonably point out, made of issues more substantive than the preservation of a building, even a building as important as the White House. But the broader lesson remains: When ideological demagogues decide that deadlock is a reasonable alternative to not having their way, worthy people and worthy projects pay the ultimate price. It's anyone's guess what we stand to lose this time around. But 64 years ago, we nearly lost the most important structure in the republic.

Robert Klara is a staff writer at Adweek magazine and longtime writer on U.S. history. His latest book, The Hidden White House, will be published by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press on October 22nd.