Blog Post Craig Obey Oct 17, 2013

Small Potatoes in a Big Standoff

After an agonizing 16-day impasse, Congress and the administration finally reopened the federal government on October 17 and authorized a short-term resolution that will fund national parks through January 15, 2014. We missed these places, and we’re happy to see open signs replace closed signs at last. The fight to adequately fund America’s most inspirational places is not over, however. This stopgap measure, while necessary, continues a slow-motion shutdown in our National Park System that needs to end.

People around the country were saddened and frustrated to see closed roads and barricades around their beloved parks this month, but closed signs weren’t a new sight at our national parks. Just this past spring, another dysfunctional debate in Washington led to another short-sighted result that crippled America’s best places: the federal budget sequester. Plenty of businesses were already seeing fewer customers thanks to these damaging across-the-board cuts, and countless visitors had their plans disrupted by closed campgrounds, canceled educational programs, trash-strewn restrooms, and other inconveniences stemming from dramatic belt-tightening on already-strapped park budgets.

As citizens return to these treasured places and express their anger over Washington’s most recent political failure, it is worth asking: What now? Our national parks have been in a slow-motion shutdown for a long time, and this most recent standoff was merely the most dramatic new symptom of a much larger illness. In recent years, Congress has devoted fewer and fewer resources to the very symbols of national pride that Americans treasure most, from Yellowstone to the Grand Canyon to the Statue of Liberty, and used these places as pawns in a pointless, highly partisan funding debate. The inadequate, broken budget process is the reason our parks were so vulnerable to fiscal politics in the first place.

Potato Chips and Congress

When I think of the federal budget, my mind naturally goes to potato chips. Yes, those crispy snacks in the crinkly mylar bags. Think about it: Has there ever been a potato chip bag that was actually filled to the top with chips? Who among us hasn’t thought that the chip company was trying to put one over on consumers by pretending a bag of chips was full when it was not? That’s what has been happening with the federal budget. Washington tells us there is enough to go around, including funding for our parks and other fundamental governmental functions, but there isn’t. Not the way Congress has been mismanaging this basic government process for years.

It’s important to understand that only a tiny portion of our federal budget goes to the important work of maintaining our national parks. Right off the bat, two-thirds of the entire federal budget must fund entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, social safety net programs like food stamps and Medicaid, and interest payments on our national debt. Of the last third, half is earmarked for defense programs. The remaining 17% of the budget is all congressional representatives have left to allocate toward the so-called “discretionary” programs that include not only national parks, but many other important programs such as Head Start, the National Institutes of Health, food inspection, education, public health, and veterans’ programs as well. The across-the-board budget sequester in March cut funding significantly, but only from the money earmarked for “discretionary” and defense programs. So if we’re imagining this “discretionary” budget as a bag of chips, the package had even more air and significantly fewer chips in it before it was even opened.

Every year, Congress is supposed to agree on how much money goes into these “discretionary” and defense programs. Once the overall “discretionary” funding is decided, Congress divides the money among 11 separate groups. Using the potato chip example, it would be like taking one big bag of snacks and pouring it into 11 separate bowls so everyone gets their share. The groups don’t, however, get equal shares. One of the smallest bowls with the fewest chips includes national parks, wildlife, and the environment. This year, the House and Senate weren’t able to agree on how many chips to put into the bag, let alone how to divide the chips between the 11 separate bowls. When Congress couldn’t agree, none of the 11 groups got anything, creating the shutdown.

If you have a brother like mine, you also know that as soon as the chips go in the bowl, you had better be nearby—otherwise, guess who gets all the chips? The same is true when you get in line at a party to fill up your plate. If the people at the front of the line take too many chips, there aren’t enough left over for everybody else. Representatives in the House determine who gets to be at the front of the line. The House passed a budget this year that proposed letting defense go to the front of the line to receive funding not only from its own budget, but also from the “discretionary” budget, before these smaller groups could get through the line. Then, because there isn’t enough money to go around, the House has tended to allow certain favored groups to be served first, which makes it impossible to feed the rest. As a consequence, the last time Congress was able to pass all the appropriations bills and fund them appropriately has become a distant memory.

As they say, it takes two to tango. As the sequester took hold this spring, the House passed a budget that proposed taking away even more chips.  The Senate, on the other hand, wanted to reverse the sequester cuts and proposed adding back money, a.k.a. chips,  that had been removed from the “discretionary” budget. With two vastly different visions and priorities, the whole process broke down and none of the bowls were filled. Meanwhile, the president refused to sign any agreement that didn’t have what he felt was the right number of chips. Welcome to Washington.

Chips Fall Where They May

The arguments aren’t just about money. They’re also about what the agencies that get funded should be allowed to do, such as take action to address climate change or prepare for the Affordable Care Act.

Just look at the recently proposed House Interior appropriations bill—a document that governs the funding for the national parks. The Park Service already has an $11.5 billion backlog of deferred maintenance projects. But in order to put more money into park operations so that fewer facilities would have to close, the bill cuts the construction budget by 14%, exacerbating that backlog. It doesn’t have enough money to fight fires like the recent Rim Fire at Yosemite. It cuts the Environmental Protection Agency by 34%. It cuts every penny devoted to purchasing inholdings—private pockets of land in the middle of national parks and other federal lands that are at risk for incompatible development.

To be sure, all budgets are about priorities. Household budgets work the same way. We need to pay for the most important things first. With any luck, a little extra is left over after covering the mortgage, utilities, and upkeep to eat out once in a while or go on vacation. For the Park Service, the non-essential budget disappeared long ago. Now they can’t pay enough to heat the whole house, so they’re closing off some rooms and letting the paint peel and the shingles rot, hoping for a brighter day.

Now that the shutdown is over, there is still not enough money just to cover the essentials—let alone actually improve facilities, expand education and interpretation programs, and prepare the Park Service for its centennial in 2016.

Don’t Cash In Your Chips

So, what happens next? Six months ago, when the sequester forced park officials to close bathrooms, delay access to popular destinations, and try to make ends meet in other ways, nobody was storming barricades. Now that people are finally mad, we need to do something constructive with that anger. We need every person who thinks it was stupid to close our government, who wanted to crash the closed park gates, and who has tweeted, kvetched, or rolled their eyes about this ridiculous situation to hold their elected officials in Washington accountable for real solutions and genuine results.

Now that our government, including our national parks, is finally open again, the House and Senate need to hear from all of us that they still have a job to do. Plenty of politicians have used our parks, the dedicated National Park Service rangers, visitors, and park-dependent businesses as political pawns for 16 days, lamenting the pain that was being caused and talking about how important our parks and monuments are. Now it’s time for them to put their money where their mouth has been.

Congress has taken the first step to reopen our parks, but only until the middle of January. With new discussions starting between the House and Senate about where to go from here, we must make the reopening of our national parks permanent and complete by providing adequate funding to keep them fully open and maintained. Take action on our website and tell your senators and representative that we simply cannot continue shortchanging our parks, local businesses, and visitors. By insidiously chipping away at the Park Service budget year after year, we only threaten more closures and disrepair to these places we treasure and missed so much during the shutdown.

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