For Members, the Ohio Clock Stoppage Is Easy Metaphor for Shutdown

Perhaps no other victim of the federal shutdown has more vividly demonstrated the cutoff of funding or has prompted as many smart alec remarks as the Senate’s stately Ohio Clock.

Its hands froze in place at 12:14 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon, the result of the furloughing of Capitol Hill workers responsible to wind it and make sure it stays in proper working order.

The winding of the richly grained mahogany timepiece, which has stood in the main corridor just outside the Senate chamber since 1859, falls to a team in the Office of the Senate Curator. That staff was furloughed, the Office of the Secretary of the Senate confirmed.

Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer didn’t think the functioning of the Ohio Clock would be essential to operations.

“We can certainly get by without it working,” Gainer said outside the door of the chamber.

The symbolism of the timepiece’s stoppage, though, was irresistible to some lawmakers, particularly those who have been leading tours of the Capitol in the wake of Capitol Visitor Center tour guides being furloughed as well.

The stalled timepiece quickly became a popular photo opportunity. Sen. Mark S. Kirk, R-Ill., was among the members posing with the timepiece on Thursday.

Rep. Rob Bishop said the Ohio Clock’s stoppage was news to him, but he’d probably be adding the detail about furloughed employees to his tours.

Walking out of the Senate Gallery on Thursday afternoon, the Utah Republican joked, “They’re not doing a whole hell of a lot in there. Maybe one of them could go wind it.”

Already privy to the teasing, Sen. Patty Murray said she had “heard it was time for us to go wind it.”

If she were giving a Capitol tour, the Washington Democrat said, she would offer the Ohio Clock as an example of the need to end the stalemate, telling tourists, “We need to open up the government so the clock works.”

The last time the clock stopped ticking is a mystery, just like the origin of its name. That’s because the staff of the Senate Historical Office was also furloughed.

According to the historian’s records, Connecticut Sen. David Daggett wrote Philadelphia clockmaker Thomas Voigt in 1815 to order a clock for the Senate chamber, which was then under construction following its burning by the British during the War of 1812.

“It is impossible that I should describe technically the clock which we wish. It is designed to place it over the chair of the president [of the Senate] or on the gallery in front and of course it should be of the kind you mention,” Daggett wrote. He requested the spread eagle atop the clock, and he added, “We wish it good and handsome and expect to pay accordingly.”

It was installed in the newly restored chamber in 1819 and transferred to its current location in 1859, where it has been ticking away ever since, give or take a shutdown or two.

The clock’s glass face was demolished when a bomb exploded outside the Senate chamber on Nov. 7, 1983. According to an Associated Press article written in the wake of that incident, workers initially thought the mechanism was broken, “but a little tinkering got its pendulum swinging once again.”

At least 10 other historic timepieces are under the care of the chamber’s curators, including a steel-faced, 7-foot-tall floor clock outside the President’s Room and the gilded-frame gallery clock in the Old Senate Chamber.

Wristwatches and cellphones just don’t carry that kind of heft.