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Shutdown prompts accusations of White House favoritism

The Obama administration defends itself against conservative critics who say some closures were made just to draw media attention.

October 10, 2013|By Becca Clemons and Kathleen Hennessey
  • World War II veterans Alfredo Alvarez, left, and Robert Crawford visit the World War II Memorial in Washington.
World War II veterans Alfredo Alvarez, left, and Robert Crawford visit… (Olivier Douliery / Abaca…)

WASHINGTON — While Republicans and Democrats trade daily charges over who is to blame for the government shutdown, the White House has come under sharp attack for how it has shuttered services.

The administration's critics, among them conservative websites and groups, see politics or favoritism in the choices the administration has made about what is essential and what is less so, suggesting that some of the decisions were intended simply to inflict pain that would draw media attention.

Among the charges: President Obama closed commissaries for military personnel but kept open a military golf course he frequents; he ordered civilian military chaplains to stay home and barred veterans from national memorials.

The administration insists the reasons for its decisions are mundane, often stemming from how many employees are deemed essential and where the money comes from to pay for different programs.

Another factor, officials acknowledge, was confusion over how to cease government operations. The last time the government ran in shutdown mode was 17 years ago.

On the first day of the shutdown, parking lots closed at Mount Vernon, the estate of George Washington, for about three hours. Some saw sinister motives.

"The tour bus turnaround at Mount Vernon has been closed by federal police. This is deliberate effort by Obama to hurt the public. Disgusting." That tweet came from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose budget disputes with President Clinton led to the last two shutdowns.

But a National Park Service spokesman said it was simply a mistake, noting that the agency had little experience with keeping people out of parks. "That's simply not in our DNA," Mike Litterst said. "We're not used to doing this, and we're learning things along the way."

Mount Vernon and the lots are owned by the nonprofit Mount Vernon Ladies' Assn. However, the National Park Service helps keep up the lots because they are also used for the government-owned Mount Vernon Trail.

"The short and simple of it is that we own it, they maintain it," Mount Vernon spokeswoman Melissa Wood said.

Once the National Park Service realized the mixup, the barricades were removed.

The National Park Service's decision to deny veterans entry to the World War II Memorial enraged many people and fueled much of the subsequent skepticism about the administration's actions.

Since the second day of the shutdown, the National Park Service has allowed groups to take part in "1st Amendment activities" in designated areas, including the World War II Memorial, Litterst said, noting that such events are allowed under the service's closure order.

Also closed until this week were all but four of the 178 military commissaries in the United States, including at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. Meanwhile, the base golf course that Obama uses stayed open.

The golf course does not receive money from Congress, said Capt. Lindy Singleton, a spokeswoman for Joint Base Andrews, but runs off its own sales. "One of the good things about our golf course is that it does make a good amount of money to support things on this base that don't make a lot of money," Singleton said.

But, she noted, the golf course money cannot be used to pay for services that require congressional approval for funding — such as commissaries, which are under the umbrella of the Defense Department.

The commissaries saw nearly 70% of their employees furloughed until Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recalled civilian workers whose "responsibilities contribute to the morale, well-being, capabilities and readiness of service members," citing a recently passed law to keep military paychecks coming during the shutdown.

Commissaries returned to normal hours Monday.

Also back to work is nearly all of the staff of the American Forces Network, which broadcasts to troops in combat. The Obama administration was blamed for pulling the plug on the AFN's entertainment and sports channels, leaving troops with a single channel that shows only news.

"Camp David is essential, but popular programming for heroes overseas is nonessential," wrote John Nolte of the conservative site

A spokesman said the network could only run one channel while most of its 100 employees were furloughed, although the news channel did broadcast the Air Force-Navy football game last weekend.

The initial decision to furlough military chaplains who work under contract sparked an outcry among religious groups. William Donohue, president and chief executive of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, accused the Obama administration of declaring war on the civil liberties of Catholics. "It is one thing to deny services that carry no constitutional weight, quite another to censor the 1st Amendment," he said.

A defense official said the contract chaplains were treated the same as all other civilian employees. "It has no connection to the job they hold. It has every connection to the fact that they work for the federal government," said the official, who declined to be identified discussing personnel issues.

The contract chaplains are now back at work.

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