Members of Congress seemed to channel Coldplay Wednesday during a House hearing on the shutdown's effects. "Nobody said it was easy," went the Democratic message. Countered Republicans: "No one ever said it would be this hard."
At issue were public land closures by the National Park Service that Republicans have described as politically motivated. Even the name of the hearing—"As Difficult As Possible"—carried the GOP message of unnecessary hardship caused by NPS decisions. The joint hearing was convened by the Natural Resources Committee and the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
"The Park Service … [should] never allow itself to be subjected to political influence," said House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif. "Yet it appears today the Park Service leadership is no longer living up to that mandate."
NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis had the unenviable task of responding to Issa and others who demanded answers for a host of the agency's specific closures. He defended them as necessary under shutdown procedure, declining to wade into the political blame game over who is responsible for the shutdown. Perhaps that's because Democrats did it for him.
"We're 15 days into a government shutdown, and now Republicans want to investigate why the government is shut down," said Natural Resources Committee ranking member Peter DeFazio of Oregon. Other Democrats asked Republicans what they expected would happen when they shut down the government, but DeFazio took it a step further. "I will demonstrate who's responsible," he said, holding up a mirror to face his GOP colleagues.
Jarvis said the Park Service gave no orders, nor received any from the White House, to make shutdown closures intentionally painful or visible. Much-critiqued closures of monuments such as the World War II Memorial were not without reason, he said. "There's a lot of talk about open-air memorials that are unmanned," he said. "They are not unoccupied. My responsibility is to keep them protected 24 hours a day.… It pains us to not be able to invite the American public into their national parks."
Some Democrats pointed to the green paint splattered on the Lincoln Memorial this summer, saying such incidents could escalate if monuments were left open with no NPS rangers to provide security.
That didn't satisfy Republicans, who said earlier government shutdowns did not inflict such painful consequences. Former NPS Deputy Director Denis Galvin called that selective memory. "Yes, Lincoln and Jefferson were barricaded," he said. "The much-discussed World War II Memorial did not exist then, but if it had, I think we would have barricaded it."
Jarvis also pushed back on news reports that quoted a ranger who said NPS employees were instructed to make closures painful. "I have no idea where that information came from. That's hearsay," he said. "I'm in communication with my employees—the ones who are still at work—and they do not believe that."
Keeping the parks open, Jarvis said, would have been a violation of the Antideficiency Act, which prevents operations without appropriated funding. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, responded that erecting barricades "created a new obligation with no new threat," itself a violation of the act.
Oversight Committee ranking member Elijah Cummings, D-Md., lamented that arguments over the World War II Memorial distracted from serious shutdown problems, like delayed veterans' benefits. Other Democrats were more than content to mock the GOP for its outrage over the park closures. "Blaming the National Park Service for the closure of the parks is like voting for capital punishment and then blaming the hangman," said Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C.