When the National Park Service’s budget was slightly cut in 1969, its director could have fired a few paper-pushers to balance the books. Instead, the cunning small-town lawyer promptly closed the Washington Monument and the Grand Canyon. The cuts were quickly cancelled, the director was dismissed, and the “Washington Monument Syndrome” was born: if an agency’s budget is being cut, the most popular services it provides are to be cut first, in order to cause maximal disruption and visibility. But the Obama Administration, in the current federal shutdown, has added a new twist to this mild form of political blackmail: not only is it shutting down national parks, it is spending more money to close as many national parks as possible.
Take the World War II Memorial in Washington, for instance. It’s a privately-funded open-air installation that, in normal times, never closes and requires no permanent staff. When the shutdown started, National Park Service personnel showed up and put barricades around it in order to stop the public from visiting it. Never mind that the Memorial is an open-air plaza with no entrances, and that it cost nothing to keep the Memorial open, but quite a lot of money to close it. In the end, a group of rather disgruntled WWII veterans tore down the barriers and visited the memorial unmolested. It made for good headlines (“Evil Republicans Stop Dying Veterans from going to War Memorial”), as it was supposed to do. But it was nothing except a partisan exercise that used frail veterans as cannon-fodder in the ongoing political struggle. As one NPS staffer puts it, “It’s a cheap way to deal with the situation. We’ve been told to make life as difficult for people as we can. It’s disgusting.”
NPS locations that are not run by the federal government are also being told to shut down. A private company running 100 camping sites on rented federal land has been forced to close all its installations, even though they don’t take any federal money and employ no federal workers. Indeed, they are net contributors to the Treasury’s coffers, and were not closed during the 1995 shutdown. Similarly, NPS-owned facilities operated by state governments have also been closed, with no more justification, since their operational expenses are paid by state funds only. How is closing installations whose operational expenses are being entirely met outside of the federal budget a legitimate response to the shutdown?
The Obama Administration is hardly a novice in the art of creating maximal disruption. When the budget sequester started earlier this year, it stopped offering tours of the White House, blaming the automatic budget cuts. How much did the tours cost? A whopping…$2 million. In contrast, the President’s first vacation of the year cost more than $10 million. Even the Washington Post, hardly a part of the great right-wing conspiracy, condemned the move, which everybody understood as an act of political brinksmanship. To no avail, for tours of the executive mansion are still suspended, to the dismay of schoolchildren and tourists.
Whatever the opinions one may have about the shutdown, to minimize its impact on the course of American national life is a goal that both sides should be able to get behind. To intentionally maximize disruptions so as to obtain some political advantage is the type of strategy one expects to see from a banana republic, not from one of the world’s oldest democracies. Then again, considering the current state of American governance, perhaps it’s becoming hard to tell which is which.
-Yuan Yi Zhu