WASHINGTON — As congressional leaders raced to seal a deal that would reopen the government, lawmakers from both parties jabbed at one another Wednesday over who was to blame for the most high-profile casualties of the 16-day shutdown: the national parks.
At a House hearing, members of Congress focused on the World War II Memorial on the National Mall, where veterans were initially denied access after the government closed on Oct. 1. A crowd that included Republican lawmakers converged on the memorial Sunday, pushing past barriers to protest the site’s closure.
The memorial and other national park units have become a political symbol as lawmakers bicker over blame for the park closings.
Republicans say many parks and open-air monuments did not need to be closed, but Democrats said the GOP had only itself to blame for the shutdown, after Republicans demanded that measures to defund the new health care law be included in bills to keep the government open.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., held up a mirror at the hearing and invited Republicans to look at it to find the cause of the shutdown.
Governors in at least five states have reopened national parks such as the Grand Canyon and Statue of Liberty in recent days, but Republicans say the measures were too little, too late.
Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said the National Park Service appears to have intentionally made the shutdown “as painful and visible as possible.”
Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis denied that, saying that turning away visitors “is not in our DNA.”
Jarvis called the agreements with governors that have allowed some parks to reopen “a practical and temporary solution that will lessen the pain for some businesses and communities – a Band-Aid until Congress passes an appropriations bill.”
Jarvis, who appeared at the hearing only after being issued a subpoena, urged Congress to reopen the government so his agency can reopen all 401 national park units.
Republicans, including Hastings and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said the Park Service acted in a political and provocative manner when it set up barricades at open-air monuments such as the World War II Memorial and placed traffic cones along highway viewing areas outside Mount Rushmore and other parks.
Hastings heads the House Natural Resources Committee, while Issa leads the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The committees held the joint hearing.
Jarvis defended placement of barricades at the World War II Memorial and other sites, saying that all but a dozen park service employees who work at the National Mall have been furloughed. Given the limited staff resources during the shutdown, “prudent and practical steps were taken to secure life and property at these national icons where security has become increasingly complex in a post-9/11 world,” he said.
Contrary to the assertion of several Republican lawmakers, Jarvis said the Park Service allowed veterans and their families to visit the World War II Memorial.
“We know that visits of America’s World War II veterans to the memorial are pilgrimages that many of them will only make once,” he said. “Throughout the shutdown, we have worked diligently to try and ensure that no Honor Flight group, veteran, or their family has been turned away from visiting the veterans’ memorials.”
An organization called the Honor Flight Network brings World War II veterans to Washington.
Other visitors also are allowed at the memorial under an exception that allows First Amendment activities, Jarvis said.
Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., was not impressed. He said Jarvis’s decision to set up barricades at the Lincoln and World War II memorials was “wrong” and mean-spirited.
“You besmirched (the Park Service’s) reputation and soured relations with Congress,” Lamborn told Jarvis. “In my opinion you have failed.”
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., denounced Lamborn’s comment and called Jarvis an “exemplary” public servant. Connolly called the hearing a “theater of the absurd” and “an audacious attempt by the majority to deflect responsibility and blame for the real-world consequences of a government shutdown.”
GOP Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, along with former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, were among those at the World War II Memorial on Sunday. Cruz, Lee and other tea party-backed lawmakers refused to keep the government operating unless President Barack Obama agreed to defund the nation’s health care overhaul.