A Tale of Two Shutdowns

Interior tries to limit harm to the public, unlike in 2013.

 
 

Director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney speaks to reporters outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington, Jan. 19.
Director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney speaks to reporters outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington, Jan. 19. PHOTO: JIM LO SCALZO/EPA-EFE/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK
 

The government shutdown continued on Sunday as Senate Democrats imitate Republican Ted Cruz’s 2013 strategy of using government funding to force a President’s hand on an unrelated issue. Mr. Cruz wanted ObamaCare repeal while Democrats want to coerce the GOP on immigration, but the budget blackmail strategy deserves to fail again. The important difference this time is that the Trump Administration is trying to limit the shutdown damage while President Obama tried to make it as painful as possible.

White House budget director Mick Mulvaney vowed on Friday that this shutdown “will look very different than it did under the previous Administration” and “we are not going to weaponize it.” The White House is being true to its word as it scrambles to minimize the inconvenience to the public and government workers to the extent it can under the law.

This includes letting agencies use money that has been appropriated but unspent to be used for urgent purposes. Most of the Environmental Protection Agency will stay open, trade negotiations will continue, and about half of all mine inspectors will stay on the job compared to only 25% or so in 2013.

A specific case in contrast is the Interior Department, which runs the national park system that the Trump Administration is trying to keep “as accessible as possible while still following all applicable laws and procedures,” spokeswoman Heather Swift said Friday. Tourists can still visit Washington, D.C.’s parks and war memorials, and visitors won’t be blocked from hiking many national park trails. The National Park Service will close areas only if there’s a safety risk or to protect cultural artifacts. 

By contrast, the Obama Administration acted fast to block and lock down parks and public lands. On the eve of the 2013 shutdown, Park Service spokeswoman Jennifer Mummart emailed colleagues about a scheduled World War II memorial visit by aging or terminally ill veterans. She asked whether “we are physically preventing people through use of some barrier to gaining access? (jersey barriers, fence, tape, saw horses or something)?”

Deputy Superintendent of Operations Karen Cucurullo replied, “Yes, signs and barricades.” The next day Park Service spokeswoman Carol Johnson was at the memorial and ready to make a political point as the 91 veterans arrived. “This is so meaningful to the vets,” she told the press. “The main thing is we’d like to get back to work and welcome visitors again.” The veterans were able to visit the memorial only after Mississippi Rep. Steven Palazzo and others moved the barriers, defying signs announcing the site’s closure.

Despite signs stating that the national parks are closed, people visit the World War II Memorial in Washington, Oct. 2, 2013.
Despite signs stating that the national parks are closed, people visit the World War II Memorial in Washington, Oct. 2, 2013. PHOTO: SUSAN WALSH/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Other correspondence shows Ms. Cucurullo handling her own team with much more leniency. When a staffer asked to enter the offices during the shutdown to retrieve personal items, she responded, “No problem, just put barricades back.”

On Sept. 30, 2013, South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard wrote to National Park Service director Jonathan Jarvis, offering to keep Mount Rushmore open using state personnel and resources. Mr. Jarvis shut down Mr. Daugaard and the monument. “Beyond the legal constraints involved, it would not be feasible or appropriate to open some parks or some parts of parks while other parts of the National Park System remain closed to the public,” the director replied on Oct. 3. 

Unlike in 2013, this time Interior is looking into how state funding or private donations can be used to keep parks and sites open despite the shutdown. Privately operated gift shops, concession booths and gas stations on public lands will be allowed to open. In 2013 Xanterra Parks & Resorts, a private company that operates hotels, restaurants and other services in 21 national parks, lost about $1 million each day of the shutdown.

Shutdowns usually end when one side or the other begins to fear the political damage, but Democrats seem to think they can’t lose a blame game. One way for the public to judge is to look at who is trying to exploit it for political advantage, and this time it isn’t the Trump Administration.

Appeared in the January 22, 2018, print edition.

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