WASHINGTON – Sequestration may ultimately lead to longer airport lines, spotty food inspection, and compromised military preparedness, but the issue that appears stuck in everyone’s craw is the decision to terminate public tours of the White House.
The Obama administration announced that public access to what many view as “the people’s house” would halt, at least temporarily, citing “staffing reductions resulting from sequestration.” Normally, about 614,000 people tour 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue each year.
“Unfortunately, we will not be able to reschedule affected tours,” read the statement released by the White House Visitors Office. “We very much regret having to take this action, particularly during the popular Spring touring season.”
The move is intended to save the federal government about $74,000 a week, or $2 million to the end of the federal fiscal year on Sept. 30. It’s a pittance compared to the multi-billion dollar expenditures that regularly pass through. But the Obama administration insists it was a necessary step given the across-the-board nature of the required budget cuts.
“The president and the first lady have, throughout the time that they’ve been here, made extraordinary efforts to make this the people’s house, and it is extremely unfortunate that we have a situation like the sequester that compels the kinds of tradeoffs and decisions that this represents,” said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.
But sequester impacts the Secret Service just as much as it affects other governmental agencies.
“The Secret Service presented options that ranged from canceling tours to potential furloughs and cuts in overtime,” Carney said. “And in order to allow the Secret Service to best fulfill its core mission, the White House made the decision that we would, unfortunately, have to temporarily suspend these tours.”
In a supporting statement, the Secret Service announced that officers normally assigned to conducting public tours will be reassigned to other security posts at the White House.
“This staffing measure will reduce overtime costs overall and may ultimately reduce the number of potential furloughs necessary by our agency,” the statement read.
The White House has actually been closed to public tours twice in recent times. Terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2011, forced closure until February 2002. The doors shut again in March 2003 when the U.S. invaded Iraq. They reopened in September of that year.
Regardless, the decision has been universally panned. A sixth-grade class from St. Paul’s Lutheran School in Waverly, Iowa, was scheduled to visit 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. on March 16 only to discover their expectations dashed. The students expressed their disappointment in a nine-second video posted on Facebook.
“The White House is our house,” the students intone. “Please let us visit.”
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who has butted heads with the White House for months over spending cuts, took the opportunity to remind those visiting Washington, D.C., that lawmakers will continue to welcome visitors to the Capitol and slammed the White House for shutting the door.
“I think it’s disappointing that the Obama administration didn’t follow our lead and find savings in other parts of their budget,” Boehner said. “I think it’s silly that they’ve insisted on locking down the White House, which the American people actually own.”
Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) on Thursday introduced an amendment to the Senate continuing resolution to force the White House to reopen its doors by transferring $2.5 million from the Transportation Security Administration budget to the Secret Service.
“Cancelling White House tours is an unnecessary and unfair way for the Department of Homeland Security to meet its budget-cutting obligations – particularly if the necessary savings can be found elsewhere within the department,” Moran said. “TSA can absorb this cut – just last week they signed a $50 million contract for new outfits.”
Congress has taken some modest steps to comply with the sequestration requirements — closing a few entry ways into the Capitol as well as some doors to House and Senate office buildings. But the building remains accessible.
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) used the words of First Lady Michelle Obama to take an ironic swing at the decision. She is quoted in a page on the White House web site as saying, “It’s the ‘People’s House.’ It’s a place that is steeped in history, but it’s also a place where everyone should feel welcome. And that’s why my husband and I have made it our mission to open up the house to as many people as we can.”
“During these tough economic times many Americans have planned, saved and scrimped enough funds to make their way to the nation’s capital this spring,” Gohmert said. “It is more than troublesome that our president is standing in the way of families and lifelong memories. President Obama has often called for solidarity in his speeches. Now is the time for our commander in chief to lead the way.”
Even Donald Trump, the wealthy developer who considered staging his own campaign for president last year, first as a Republican and then as an independent before abandoning the idea, has entered the fray.
During an appearance on Fox and Friends, the early-morning program on the Fox News channel, the man they call “The Donald” offered to pick up the tab through the end of the fiscal year, which concludes on Sept. 30.
“It sounds reasonable to me — why not?” Trump said. “It’s certainly not a lot of money. The big thing is that the country is going to lose a trillion dollars this year. Closing the White House tours is not exactly the biggest thing on the agenda.”
No word on whether the White House is considering the offer.
Carney insisted the problem could have been avoided “if Congress had taken action to delay the sequester in the very same way they took action two months ago — two and a half months ago, to delay the sequester to avoid just this kind of outcome.”
“We’re talking about pay cuts and overtime cuts or a choice to suspend tours,” Carney said. “And I’m not suggesting it’s a happy choice, but it is one that we had to make.”