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Washington • Rep. Rob Bishop charged Wednesday that the National Park Service may have violated federal law by erecting barriers around open-air monuments in Washington during the government shutdown. Democrats countered that Republicans were engaging in a sideshow to deflect from the GOP-caused closure.
Bishop, R-Utah, said that since the park service doesn't normally place barriers or fencing around the National Mall monuments when docents and rangers leave for the day, doing so during the now-ended government shutdown was illegal.
"If there is no specific threat, you have violated the Anti-Deficiency Act," Bishop said Wednesday during a joint congressional hearing on the closure of hundreds of national parks and monuments nationwide. The law prohibits doing work without federal funding. Violations can result in jail time and fines.
While about 800,000 federal employees were furloughed in the shutdown and many services were curtailed, the national parks including the iconic World War II Memorial and others became the face of a shuttered government.
Republicans seized on the barriers and closures as naked political maneuvering by the White House to amp up the sting of the shutdown. Democrats charged back that there wouldn't have been a single closed park had the GOP not tried to halt funding for the Affordable Care Act, prompting the shutdown in the first place.
"Here's who is responsible for shutting down the national parks," said Rep. Pete Defazio, D-Ore., holding a mirror to the Republican side of the aisle.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia's nonvoting delegate, said that blaming the administration for closing parks in a shutdown is like "voting for capital punishment and then blaming the hangman as the execution" is carried out.
Jonathan Jarvis, head of the park service whose appearance before the joint committee was driven by a subpoena, said that when the government entered a partial closure, he was required by law to protect America's treasured parks and monuments.
"Given the limited staff resources," Jarvis testified, "prudent and practical steps were taken to secure life and property of these national icons."
On a normal day, he said, 300 park employees are on duty on the National Mall. But the shutdown meant he could field only Park Police to protect monuments in D.C.
"Turning away visitors," Jarvis said, "is not in our culture or in our DNA."
Some closures were essentially moot since states including Utah, Colorado, South Dakota and California stepped up to fund and reopen parks during the shutdown. The states are hoping to be reimbursed for those costs.
GOP members vowed to continue investigating the parks service actions. Before the end of Wednesday's hearing, Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa said he would issue several subpoenas to the Interior Department for documents relating to the closures.
"It's very clear that the promises you make have no value," Issa told Jarvis.
Issa, R-Calif., argued that locking the gates to the Grand Canyon or denying veterans access to the World War II Memorial was about optics for the Obama administration.
"It is clear that the lack of money does not mean that one park in America is required to close," Issa said.
Jarvis said he did discuss his plans to erect barriers and close parks with the White House, but insisted he informed officials there of his plans and was not being told what to do. "It was never the reverse," Jarvis said.