The government shutdown hasn’t even ended yet, but a group of Congressional Republicans, who polls show are receiving the lion’s share of the blame for the two-week fiscal standoff, spent part of Wednesday accusing the Obama administration and National Park Service officials of “decision making based on politics rather than prudence.”
As lawmakers prepared to vote on a deal to end the government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling in order to prevent a U.S. default, members of both the House Oversight and Natural Resources Committee, led by Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), held a joint hearing to investigate the closing of national parks and memorials, which quickly became some of the most visible symbols of the shutdown.
Sparks flew at the contentious hearing in which Republicans blamed the National Park Service for unnecessarily using additional personnel to close down notable landmarks, including the World War II Memorial.
“Why, when I asked the police standing duty there personally, did they tell me that every policeman was on duty?” Issa said in a question posted to Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis. “I repeat, an open-air monument was guarded by the same number of people to prevent Americans from getting in as would allow them to safely go in and out on a daily basis.”
Issa subpoenaed Jarvis during the hearing for a second time (he was already subpoenaed to appear before the Committee) in order to obtain documents, including e-mails and phone calls, related to the shutdown.
Democrats on the committees, including Oversight Committee ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), expressed exasperation that their Republican colleagues decided to hold the hearing in the first place. “Their approach puts ideology of one political party ahead of the interest of our entire nation. Even worse, if this issue is not resolved in the next few hours, we will begin defaulting on our debts, something our nation has never done before.”
“Do you know what really honors our nation’s heroes for their service and for their sacrifice?” Cummings asked. “Providing them with the benefits they earned after suffering injuries in combat. Paying them the pensions they need to cover their rent, their utility bills, their food and guaranteeing the assistance they rely on to stay off the streets and, in some cases, to simply stay alive.”
As details of the Senate-brokered deal to end the fiscal stalemate trickled out on Wednesday, the partisan divisions within the committees were on full display.
At one point, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), posed an unusual question to the Park Service chief: “Director Jarvis, I’m just curious, the philosophy that you have as director of the Park Service. Do you believe our rights come from our creator or from our government and Constitution?”
Furious Democrats on the committees pushed back.
“I came to Congress to solve problems. I came to Congress to try to work across the aisle and raise the political discourse in this country and try to set a better tone,” said a frustrated Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.). ”And, instead, I am taking part in a hearing that makes the McCarthy era look like the Enlightenment.”
Other witnesses, including Anna Eberly, managing director of the Claude Moore Colonial Farm in Virginia, which operates on land owned by the Park Service, accused Obama administration officials of choosing to “close areas to the public that don’t depend on NPS personnel.”
Jarvis responded by saying that he was following the law.
“We had to actually investigate whether or not we were providing direct services that would be in violation of the Anti-Deficiency Act — utilities, trash pickup, any of the things that are not related to life and property,” said Jarvis
In an interview with ABC News, former Bush-era Interior Secretary Gale Norton, said she believed the Park Service overreached.
“I think the NPS went beyond what was necessary to just maintain expenditures; closed facilities didn’t need park service people there to run them,” Norton said. “We used to visit Rocky Mountain National Park in the winter, and you wouldn’t see any Park Service people there.”
Another former Interior Department official disagreed.
“It’s my impression then and now that NPS isn’t political, they’re not selectively shutting down certain parks,” said Bonnie Cohen, who served as Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Policy, Management, and Budget during the 1995 and 1996 government shutdowns.
“You need a lot more people there to protect and guide the public, and maintain the monuments than to just guard the perimeter,” Cohen noted. “I wish they weren’t holding these hearings.”