October 11, 2013

Cynicism, Ideology or Opportunity for Reform?

Jerry Ellig

Former Senior Research Fellow
Summary

President Barack Obama’s critics dismiss the closing of iconic monuments and attractions as a cynical political ploy to maximize the perceived pain of a partial government shutdown. That’s only partly right. These actions reflect ideological motivations that have never before guided shutdown strategy. I noticed this because I lived in the Washington area for most of the last 30 years, which covers most of the significant government shutdowns.

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President Barack Obama’s critics dismiss the closing of iconic monuments and attractions as a cynical political ploy to maximize the perceived pain of a partial government shutdown.

That’s only partly right.

These actions reflect ideological motivations that have never before guided shutdown strategy. I noticed this because I lived in the Washington area for most of the last 30 years, which covers most of the significant government shutdowns.

During the Clinton administration, I personally experienced the pain of shutdowns because I worked for the federal government. Those of us who labored on the staff of Congress’ Joint Economic Committee had to stay home because we were “non-essential.” Despite the political bloviation about how the shutdown would tank the economy, apparently Congress didn’t need economic advice during the shutdown. Had it considered some guidance on government land use and privatization, however, some of the current political gamesmanship may have been mitigated.

It was a tremendous hardship during the 1995-’96 shutdown — being locked out of the office but unable to go on vacation because the shutdown could end any day and I’d have to go back to work. As usually occurs during shutdowns (including the current one), we still got paid for staying at home, but this time, the shutdown isn’t just affecting federal employees and operations. The government also sought the shutdown of privately owned and privately funded facilities by controlling access to them.

One of the most prominent closures was the open-air World War II Memorial (until it was stormed by D-Day veterans in wheelchairs). Private funds built the memorial, but it sits on federal land, in the middle of the open-air National Mall.

Another brief victim was George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon, owned and operated by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, a private nonprofit founded in 1853. The National Park Service barricaded Mount Vernon’s parking lots with signs reading, “Because of the federal government shutdown, this National Park Service facility is closed.” Mount Vernon is not owned by the National Park Service and receives no federal money, but the free parking lots are on federal land.

Just up the George Washington Parkway in McLean, Va., the National Park Service closed the Claude Moore Memorial Farm, which re-creates American life in 1771. Prior government shutdowns never closed the farm because it’s operated by a private lessee and received no federal funding since 1980. After a week of harsh publicity, the farm was allowed to reopen on Oct. 9, with no explanation given.

Privately owned Historic Jamestowne, site of the first permanent English-speaking settlement in the United States, is closed because visitors have to drive through a national park to get there. Some private campgrounds and inns are also closed for the first time during a shutdown because they’re on federal land. Closing private campgrounds in national forests actually costs the government money because the concessionaires who operate them pay the government a percentage of revenues.

These aren’t cynical political moves at all. They are logical outgrowths of an ideology articulated in the president’s famous “you didn’t build that” speech. The language chiding selfish business owners who think government deserves no credit for their accomplishments could just as well have been directed to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association: “Somebody invested in roads and bridges … you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

Sounds like a perfectly sensible reason for the government to block off access to Mount Vernon’s parking lots, privately funded memorials, and privately run campgrounds. Maybe the next step could be setting up blockades at the entrance ramp of interstate highways to demonstrate how dependent we are on a well-funded federal government. While we’re at it, pull the plug on the Internet, since federal dollars funded the original networks connecting national defense installations and universities.

When the administration’s defenders predict calamity from a government shutdown, or sequester, or any other reduction in government activity, they’re not being cynical. They know it can happen because a federal government that controls access can deny access.

By removing the government’s control over access, privatization could eliminate some enticing opportunities to promote political polarization.

Why not sell (or give) the Mount Vernon parking lots to the nonprofit that owns Mount Vernon? Why not sell some campgrounds and inns at national forests to the lessees who operate them (with deed restrictions to ensure that they don’t get turned into theme parks)?

At the very least, Congress should give the nonprofit and for-profit operators of such facilities a legally enforceable guarantee that the federal government cannot cut off access in the future.