You might think that House Republicans would have shown at least a touch of embarrassment after needlessly shutting much of the federal government for more than two weeks. Sadly, that proved not to be the case, as evidenced by Wednesday’s inquisition into the closure of national parks. The spectacle of a career government official being berated by Republican members of Congress for cuts in service that they had caused presented a nauseating coda to this dispiriting spectacle.
“What in the world are we doing here?” was the apt question from Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., at Wednesday’s joint hearing of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and the Committee on Natural Resources. While their colleagues in the Senate were hammering out an agreement to end the shutdown and avoid default, House Republicans were hammering on National Park Services Director Jonathan B. Jarvis for doing his job.
Mr. Jarvis, who started his park service as a seasonal interpreter in 1976, likely had better things to do, given that nearly 87 percent of his agency was on furlough. Instead he was subjected to a five-hour hearing in which he had to explain the obvious: No money equals no people equals no services.
Most disturbing were the insinuations by lawmakers that Mr. Jarvis’ decisions in closing the nation’s 401 parks, monuments and other sites were unnecessary and politically motivated to inflict the most pain. “Drastic and unprecedented,” said oversight committee chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., while natural resources chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said sites were not closed by the Clinton administration during the last shutdown.
Wrong. Denis P. Galvin, deputy director of the park service during the Reagan, Clinton and Bush administrations, said that shutdown plans — “done hastily, because you’re always hoping the closure won’t happen” — were in keeping with past practices. In 1995 and 1996, he said, the Lincoln Memorial was closed, as were the Statue of Liberty, the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and other monuments around the country. Indeed, Washington Post accounts of those shutdowns detailed the frustration of tourists who found monuments and museums closed, campers evicted from national parks, the governor of Arizona ordering National Guard troops to the Grand Canyon in an attempt to keep it open and two teams of 7-year-old soccer players evicted from a national park in Washington. “The children pleaded. The parents pleaded. The coach pleaded. The answer? Closed,” read a Nov. 20, 1995, article.
No doubt there are differences in some restrictions, most notably the use this time of barriers, but there are new security sensibilities in a world after 9/11. The park service, largely due to Republican-imposed budget constraints, had lost staff and maintenance funds even before the shutdown. Republicans who suddenly developed such tender concern for the parks would do better to ensure that the government doesn’t close again — and that the agency charged with protecting America’s treasures has the resources it needs to serve the public.
This editorial originally appeared in the Washington Post.