National Parks Could Be The Budget Canary In The Sequester Mine
One of my most enduring memories from the first government shutdown in 1995 was the report about it on the network evening news the first day. While those of us inside the beltway were focused on the extraordinary political spectacle, the report showed a video of cars, vans, and campers not being allowed to get into a national park -- I think it was Yosemite -- because, like other federal offices not deemed essential, the park was closed.
As I remember, the video showed two things.
First, the lines were long because, even though the shutdown was widely reported, many people didn't realize that national parks would be affected. Many of those shown said that they didn't know the national parks were federal facilities.
Second, to put it mildly, the people shown on camera were irate. The government shutdown that was just an abstraction to most people up to that point immediately became very real and personal.
All of these memories flooded back up over the weekend because of this story in the Washington Post by Lisa Rein about how the sequester that is now widely expect to begin to go into effect on March 1 will affect the national parks. As Rein explains, parks could be closed one day a week, visitor centers could be closed or hours sharply curtailed, some parts of the parks could be closed off to visitors completely, trash could be collected less frequently, etc.
Here is the money quote from the story:
“We expect that a cut of this magnitude, intensified by the lateness of the implementation, will result in reductions to visitor services, hours of operation, shortening of seasons and possibly the closing of areas during periods when there is insufficient staff to ensure the protection of visitors, employees, resources and government assets,” (Park Service Director Jonathan) Jarvis wrote in a memo...
The memo instructs park officials to plan for furloughs and eliminate most of the 9,000 seasonal employees who staff most visitor operations.
Based on the reaction to the closing of the national parks almost two decades ago, I can't help but wonder whether it will be the reaction of park-goers and users of other similar federal activities to the effects of the sequester that will change the politics of 2013 as quickly as the shutdown changed those in 1995.
It was only after the full impact of the shutdown became obvious to those who don't do politics for a living that the incentives changed dramatically and a deal became more likely. It was also the beginning of the end of Newt Gingrich's tenure as speaker because voter anger about the shutdown, which was directed more at him and Republicans than at Bill Clinton and Democrats, continued through the election and was reflected in GOP losses.
The irony in this situation is that one of the typical ploys used over the years federal departments and agencies when they are facing spending cuts is known in budget circles as the "Washington Monument strategy" because they announce that the reductions will force them to close the Washington Monument or some other very popular federal facility. In this case, because of the sequester, the Washington Monument literally might have to be closed or its hours curtailed just as visitors start to descend on Washington this spring.