Facing withering criticism from House Republicans, the director of the National Park Service Tuesday rejected suggestions the agency purposely hyped the negative impact of mandatory spending reductions for political gain.
Automatic cuts to the agency, said Park Service chief Jon Jarvis, are "painful by definition. We have worked to try and minimize that pain, but I will tell you that that we have not instructed anyone to intentionally make this painful to the public."
Republicans were skeptical, pointing out that an official in Jarvis' own budget office last week told the House oversight committee staff that 99 percent of park visitors won't even notice the effects of the budget reductions, known as sequestration.
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., questioned whether the Park Service was using the "Washington Monument syndrome"—the public relations technique of highlighting visible and popular places and services that are about to closed or scaled back. Meadows said that permanent signs have gone up at a park in his district that say operations are closing due to the budget cuts.
"Why would you say that would happen if indeed we were not trying to make a political statement?" Meadows asked Jarvis.
The back-and-forth is part of a broader struggle to pin blame for policymaking on the other party, a familiar Washington exercise that has inspired deep public resentment of Congress. In this case, it's about the consequences of gridlock: sequestration, or automatic spending cuts, that began taking effect March 1. No one knows the full impact of the cuts in political terms because many of the reductions have yet to take effect. So lawmakers and President Barack Obama's administration are bickering over which Americans will feel the pinch, how acutely and who's at fault.
Sequestration is the result of Congress' failure to trim the deficit by $1.2 trillion over a decade. Federal agency budgets will be cut by $85 billion by the end of September, and additional spending cuts would come in future years as long as the sequester remains in effect.
Jarvis' agency manages the country's 401 national parks, including iconic sites such as Yosemite National Park in California and the Cape Cod National Seashore in Massachusetts. The agency is being forced to slash $153 million from its $2.5 billion budget through September, and Jarvis has warned the reductions will mean millions of visitors will encounter fewer rangers, find restrooms locked, and see trashcans emptied less often.
The Park Service took a series of belt-tightening measures last year — before the spending cuts appeared to be inevitable — to deal with the possibility of smaller budgets, Jarvis said. He estimated these steps, which include leaving close to 900 permanent Park Service jobs unfilled, hiring a thousand fewer seasonal employees, and cutting back on travel, overtime, supplies and equipment, will generate more than $63 million in savings.
U.S. Park Police will be the only permanent employees who have to be furloughed, Jarvis said. All 767 Park Service employees and officers are to be furloughed for 14 days.
Leaving so many permanent positions unfilled and having fewer seasonal employees will mean delayed road openings, reduced hours of operation for park programs and services, and fewer patrols, Jarvis said. Vacant natural resource management positions will make it difficult for parks to collect water quality data and monitor the condition of threatened and endangered species. Guided park programs and opportunities for direct contact with park rangers will also be reduced, he said.
The oversight committee's top Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, said Republicans take credit for the spending cuts but refuse to take responsibility for their negative effects.
But Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said Jarvis has fed fears that parks won't be able to provide basic services. "No one disputes that sequester cuts are real," Issa said. "The questions and concerns are about whether or not (the Obama) administration is doing everything it can to minimize the impact of the sequester."
Parks were directed to prioritize the cuts so as to affect the fewest number of visitors during the busy summer season and that is probably what the budget office representative who briefed the committee staff was referring to, Jarvis said.
Jarvis denied that he overstated the impact of the reductions and during the hearing detailed the effects of the spending cuts. More than two thirds of the $153 million total will come from the agency's operating accounts, Jarvis told the committee, which means that each national park and agency programs is required to shave 5 percent from its budget.
"There's a difference between intentionally making them painful (and) the fact that they will be painful," Jarvis said. "A cut at this level is painful by definition."
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