House appropriators plan hearing as Park Service, Pentagon gather numbers.
The costs and financing for President Trump’s unusual July 4 “Salute to America” in Washington will be scrutinized by House appropriators and Democratic senators.
Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., chairwoman of the Appropriations Interior Subcommittee, announced on July 3 that she plans a review of the reported decision by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to divert money from Park Service fees to pay for the special display of fireworks and military prowess Trump directed to be held at the Lincoln Memorial.
“Using National Park entrance fees to pay for this display of pageantry is absolutely outrageous,” McCollum said. “I disagreed with Secretary Bernhardt’s decision to use these fees during the prolonged federal government shutdown–the legality of which the Government Accountability Office is currently reviewing–and I disagree with his decision to use them now. These fees are not a slush fund for this administration to use at will. They are meant to improve our national parks, keep them safe and protected for Americans to enjoy, and are clearly not to be used for a political rally.”
McCollum also complained that her committee was not informed of the plan to use $2.5 million from park fees—which was reported by anonymous sources in The Washington Post, but never confirmed. “The National Mall belongs to all of us," she said. “I’m prepared to use my full oversight authority as chair of the Interior-Environment Appropriations Committee to determine how this decision was made and hold the responsible parties accountable. This administration needs to be reminded that the power of the purse belongs to Congress.”
The lawmaker told Minnesota Public Radio that her review will include a hearing to examine whether funds were diverted from the Park Service’s maintenance budget at a time of a well-known maintenance backlog of nearly $12 billion.
Costs of the Defense Department’s participation, which included flyovers and the transfer of heavyweight tanks to the nation’s capital, were not calculated before the July 4 celebration, a Pentagon spokesman told Government Executive. He said the comptroller will be reaching out to the individual services, and numbers likely won’t be available until the middle of next week.
Scrutiny of the event is also coming from Democrats in the Senate. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., ranking member of the Appropriations Interior Subcommittee, along with Sens. Chris Von Hollen, D-Md., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., on June 18 sent a request for details on funding from the Interior Department. The senators have not received a response. “It is unacceptable that the Interior Department is failing to inform Congress about how it plans to spend taxpayer money to fund the president’s lavish July 4th plans,” the senators said in a July 2 statement.
Theresa Pierno, president and CEO for the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association, speaking just before the holiday, also expressed frustration at the lack of information on the funding. “Siphoning off desperately needed money from our national parks to pay for a spectacle on our National Mall is both reckless and a breach of the public’s trust,” she said in a statement. “Two and a half million dollars might not seem like a lot to this administration, but to a national park it’s everything. Fee dollars are meant to protect our parks' irreplaceable resources and enhance visitors’ experiences, not fund a presidential stunt.”
Neither the Park Service nor the White House responded to Government Executive queries on Friday after the holiday, a day when many in government are off.
When asked for details on the funding the day before July 4, Mike Litterst, chief of communications for National Mall and Memorial Parks, said, "The Department of the Interior is committed to providing the American people a fantastic celebration of our nation’s birthday. We are doing so consistent with the department’s mission and historical practices.”
Trump himself, on July 3, tweeted, “The cost of our great Salute to America tomorrow will be very little compared to what it is worth. We own the planes, we have the pilots, the airport is right next door (Andrews), all we need is the fuel. We own the tanks and all. Fireworks are donated by two of the greats. Nice!”