Feelings are still a bit raw on Capitol Hill over the National Park Service’s decision during last October’s government shutdown to barricade portions of the National Mall favored by tourists.
Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, at a Thursday hearing on how the 16-day shutdown affected the District of Columbia, asked a Part Service witness whether his agency was reevaluating its approach to denying access to parts of the Mall, which drew onsite protests by some lawmakers concerned about aging veterans who’d traveled to Washington to see the national memorials.
“It’s one thing to fence off a park, but closing it down? That would never happen in Alaska, where we have midnight tours of parks that are never shut down,” said Begich, who chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on the District of Columbia. “I agree with the people who said it was problematic for the visitors to Washington who had no venue at which to spend money.”
But Robert Vogel, the superintendent of the National Mall and Memorial Parks, reiterated the Park Service’s argument that it was simply following the requirements of the 1870 Anti-Deficiency Act. Of the agency’s 300 employees, only 12 remained on the job during the shutdown and were available to be the “eyes and ears” for the Park Police to make sure monuments were not vandalized. “It was enormously painful to our staff to make the sites unavailable, but we are protecting national treasures,” Vogel said.
Vogel cited exceptions to honor free speech for protesters near closed sites and for aging veterans who traveled to visit, for example, the outdoor World War II Memorial. But there is no movement within his agency to rethink its approach during shutdowns, he said.
Like all the witnesses -- D.C. Democratic Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., and D.C. City Administrator Allen Lew -- Vogel suggested the solution is to avoid future shutdowns and give the District more budgetary autonomy. He noted that the funding freeze prevented the Park Service, for example, from performing its usual collection of trash at its public sites and that Mayor Vincent Gray had to direct his Department of Public Works to do the job at a cost of $92,000 over 11 days.
Begich said he is a “supporter of D.C. budget autonomy based on my instincts as a former mayor. I’m even more convinced that what action or inaction Congress takes should not impact a city at the magnitude we do your city,” he told the witnesses. “It would be one less thing for Congress to meddle in.”
Norton and others have long pursued legislation to give the District greater say in budgeting. The Government Accountability Office on Thursday rendered a legal opinion that a planned District of Columbia voter referendum on budget autonomy would not be legal.