The World War II veterans from Mississippi’s Gulf Coast had been planning their trip to Washington’s World War II memorial since the spring.
On Oct. 1, at 7 a.m., the 91 veterans boarded a US Airways charter at Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport, bound for the nation’s capital.
They flew into a media firestorm.
Their buses pulled up to a memorial surrounded by metal barricades, closed as part of the partial federal-government shutdown. A handful of congressmen and senators awaited them, many accusing President Barack Obama of coldly ordering the memorial closed just to show the human toll of a shutdown driven by Republicans. All of it played out for the TV cameras.
In fact, the decisions that put the memorial at risk of being closed were made at key points months earlier, not just in the week the government shut down. More than a single flash point in a partisan clash, the closing of the war memorial serves as a case study in the collapse of governing in Washington.
Today, little has been resolved. The shutdown ended with a temporary spending pact that will expire soon. Congressional negotiators have until next Friday to craft a federal budget before money runs out again on Jan. 15. Even if they forge an agreement, it probably will be an affirmation of the new reality of lurching from crisis to crisis, not a return to the deliberative process of deciding spending item by item.
Both major parties share the blame for the breakdown, in the House of Representatives and the Senate. The House and Senate never even negotiated on, let alone agreed on, a budget this year to set broad spending levels before the shutdown. The House passed only four of 12 annual appropriations, or spending, bills, the Senate none. Neither chamber ever considered the bill that would have provided the funds for the National Park Service and the war memorial, leaving it vulnerable to the whirlwind of last-minute brinkmanship when all the money ran out.
This story of the chaos is largely one of veteran House lawmakers who struggled to work through the system set up over the decades, of newcomers eager to challenge those ways and of a leadership unable to navigate successfully between the two.
The result: The infrastructure built up in the Congress to handle its most basic job – appropriating the money to run the government – no longer works.
“These guys really don’t care about that. They’re not really into policy,” Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, said of many of his newer colleagues who protested the memorial’s closing. “They’re into making a statement and slashing and burning us down, and that’s the problem,” added Simpson, a 13-year House veteran who was then the chairman of the subcommittee that makes decisions on Interior Department and National Park Service spending.
Many of those colleagues countered that they’re equally serious about making government work. They pointed to an April letter, signed by 101 House Republicans, urging that each spending bill be subject to granular scrutiny.
“We believe that a large reason for this low approval rating is the perception that Congress can’t get its job done,” they wrote.
It wasn’t always so. Starting in the 1970s, a generation of lawmakers built the modern budget system to better handle the job of spending money. It starts with the House and Senate adopting a budget each spring that sets broad targets, then the appropriations committees deciding line by line how to spend the money before the fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
For the last four years, though, the Senate hadn’t even adopted a budget. After being forced to pass one this year, Senate Democrats tried 22 times to get House Republicans to talk about a compromise budget that could pass both chambers. Every time, a Senate Republican stood in the way.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was one. Fearful that the Democratic budget in the Senate would make it easier to approve a higher debt ceiling, he blocked the Senate and the Republican-led House from negotiating a budget deal. Cruz explained that the negotiating could begin “right now” if the Democrats would drop their debt-ceiling plan. They wouldn’t, and Republicans kept trying for months to prevent such talks from taking place.
The House started work on its appropriations bills under the framework of its own budget resolution. The differing versions could be negotiated with the Senate later.
That same month, the Mississippi veterans began planning their trip. It never occurred to them they’d have a problem. “Why would we have ever thought this budget mess would affect the World War II memorial?” asked Wayne Lennep, the vice president of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Honor Flight.
THE HARD WORK
Few paid attention the Friday morning in April when the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies met in room B-308 of the Rayburn House Office Building, across from the Capitol.
One of 18 days of hearings on appropriations, the April 12 session focused on the park service. National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis methodically went over his agency’s budget for much of the one-hour, 49-minute session.
It’s the grunt work of Washington, rarely seen in the news or on Twitter.
Just nine congressmen attended and asked questions, including Chairman Simpson.
Through July, the subcommittee kept working and sent a spending bill to the full committee. That committee would begin considering the bill at the end of the month, the last step before it reached the full House.
In the meantime, the House was preparing to take up the appropriations bill for transportation and housing, a controversial measure that cut funding for those programs 9 percent below the automatic spending cuts already scheduled.
It’s time-consuming work. Because so many lawmakers see such bills as an important way either to cut spending or to expand government’s reach, the House has to consider dozens of amendments.
The transportation bill deliberations started at 3:04 p.m. July 30 and went on until 10:21 p.m. Eleven amendments were adopted, and seven were rejected. The Congressional Record noted that consideration would resume the next day at 10 a.m..
It never did.
Three days were left before the House would leave for a five-week summer recess. House Republican leaders were debating a turn from the painstaking work of appropriating money to the political message they wanted to carry into the break.
The appropriations bills had become a nuisance. Some conservatives – and moderates – were threatening to rebel over spending levels. House Republican leaders were nervous. A few weeks earlier, efforts to pass a farm bill had fallen apart. Losing a spending bill now would be seen as new evidence that the leaders were ineffective.
Sometime between 10:21 p.m. July 30 and the morning of July 31, Republican leaders decided to shelve the transportation bill, and it disappeared from the House floor.
“It just didn’t come back again,” recalled Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, the chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies. “They said they had other stuff they wanted to do.”
In its place would go what Washington calls “message” bills, with no chance of becoming law but crafted for maximum political use.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, explained the decision the next day. “We had 50 amendments yet to consider in that (transportation) bill,” he said. “Considering everything else that we’ve got going on this week, (we) decided that . . . finishing that bill in September was the right step.”
As members of the Appropriations Committee learned that their hard-crafted transportation bill was being set aside, they stopped working on the interior bill.
If the transportation bill couldn’t get approved, there was little hope for the interior bill. Because of the budget guidelines the House had adopted in March, writing domestic spending bills that could get majorities was proving nearly impossible: Conservatives were determined to stick to the tight budget, but Republican moderates and most Democrats refused to go along.
The Appropriations Committee chairman is Republican Rep. Hal Rogers, a 33-year House veteran from eastern Kentucky.
His voting record is as conservative as they come, but he also has shown that he knows the value of federal help for his district; the 59-mile Hal Rogers Parkway, renamed for the congressman after he helped end the road’s tolls, connects the towns of London and Hazard.
After the transportation bill was shelved, Rogers all but accused his party of giving up on the budgeting process.
“With this action,” he said, “the House has declined to proceed on the implementation of the very budget it adopted just three months ago.”
The House floor instead became the stage for a more political mission. Two days after pulling the transportation bill, the House was debating the “Keep the IRS Off Your Health Care Act of 2013,” which sought to tie an IRS scandal to the Affordable Care Act, the 2010 health law that Republicans had been trying without success to repeal.
“This is nothing short of an unwelcome big-government overreach into the most personal aspect of our lives,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.
The bill got 228 Republican and four Democratic votes. It would die in the Democratic-led Senate, of course. But it was the last vote the House took before heading home, and Republican lawmakers were given thick packets of talking points to use back home, with disdain for Obamacare in the forefront.
By the time the House returned Sept. 9, just three weeks remained until the federal fiscal year ended – and the money ran out for parts of the government.
The spending bills were all but forgotten in September, however. If the government were to remain open, Congress would have to approve a “continuing resolution,” usually a temporary budget to keep agencies operating at current levels.
Neither Rogers nor Simpson could recall any interest in the park service appropriation from the colleagues who later would protest at the war memorial.
“It’s the everyday nitty-gritty of governing,” Rogers said of the appropriations work. “We’re shoveling coal there, and that’s not a very glamorous thing.”
Neither the transportation nor interior bills ever came up in September. Or October. Or November.
Bills funding the federal government
The federal budget is made up of a series of smaller bills approving spending for related areas of the government. Committees are responsible for writing spending laws for relevant agencies, which then must be approved by all of Congress.
In recent years, fewer of these bills are being written and passed before the old budget expires and more committees are failing to write budget proposals all together.
Passed before the fiscal Before September
Passed after fiscal year began Oct. 1In October
Spending bills never passed
If Congress does not approve spending for all parts of the government by Oct. 1, the current budget expires and the government has to shutdown.
In order to avoid closing the government, Congress frequently passes "continuing resolutions," temporarily approving spending based on the previous year's budget.
Some years, such as in 2013, Congress is unable to pass a complete budget and ultimately issues a continuing resolution for the rest of the fiscal year.
Omnibus budget bills
If Congress is unable to approve of spending on a committee by committee basis, it may use an overarching "omnibus" bill to approve of unresolved spending areas.
Around 8 a.m. on Oct. 1, park service officials started barricading memorials. They started with the Lincoln Memorial, across the Reflecting Pool from the war site, and got to the World War II memorial around 8:30.
Up went barricades that look like bike racks, along with yellow “Police Line Do Not Cross” tape and a sign telling visitors about the closing.
Jim Ferencak, a Navy and Air Force veteran from Pascagoula, Miss., was among those who arrived at Washington’s Reagan National Airport at 10 a.m. At first reluctant to go on the trip, he’d changed his mind. “I’m a widower in my 80s without too much to look forward to,” he said.
He and the other veterans were met by volunteers who told them about the shutdown.
“We figured we’d go anyway. We were hoping someone would change their mind,” said Lennep, of the Honor Flight organization.
Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., a Gulf War veteran, had tried to contact the park service the day before, after his office heard from Honor Flight folks who were concerned about the impact of a shutdown.
“This is an open-air memorial that the public has 24/7 access to under normal circumstances – even when park service personnel aren’t present,” he said Sept. 30. “It actually requires more effort and expense to shut out these veterans from their memorial than it would to simply let them through.”
Around 11 a.m., the veterans’ buses pulled up on 17th Street. There were barricades at all three entrances.“I was thinking, we had flown four hours for this?” Ferencak said. The veterans figured they were here, so why not give it a try.
Palazzo’s office had sent notes to fellow House members telling them that the Mississippi veterans might be shut out and asking lawmakers to come welcome them.
Nine Republicans joined him.
One Democrat was there, but was barely noticed. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, was supposed to meet veterans from his state at the site. He came alone, and when he saw the barriers, he called Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough to voice his dismay.
“Yes, we’re aware of it. We’re working on it,” McDonough told Harkin, according to the senator. Harkin left without attracting media attention. “I didn’t want to be a part of that,” he said.
The Republican congressmen and their staffs removed the barricades, and the honor flight veterans were able to walk in. They met no resistance.
Carol Johnson, a spokeswoman for the National Mall and Memorial Parks, was at the site.
“The park is closed. We’re not seeking a confrontation with anyone,” she recalled saying. “We knew the honor flights were coming. We knew it could be a problem, and we had been in touch” with their leaders
Back at the Capitol that night, the House offered legislation to fund the park service as well as some other Washington tourist attractions. While the bill got overwhelming Republican support, most Democrats viewed it as a gimmick. The July spending bills had been the product of weeks of hearings and deliberations, and they involved entire Cabinet agencies, while this was a last-minute, piecemeal approach. It went nowhere in the Senate.
Over the next two weeks, the memorial would become a focal point for lawmakers eager to protest the shutdown – and a convenient spot for the news media to record the politicians’ outrage. Park service officials issued First Amendment permits to Honor Flight groups, as well as others, so they could visit the memorial.
Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas, took out his ire on a park ranger.
“The park service should be ashamed of themselves,” he told the ranger. Neugebauer later apologized. His office didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story.
Of the 10 Republican members of Congress who headed to the war memorial on Oct. 1, only Rep. Alan Nunnelee, R-Miss., is an Appropriations Committee member. His office didn’t respond to a request for comment.
None of the others had expressed any apparent interest in the appropriations bill that included the park service as it collapsed over the summer.
Palazzo’s spokeswoman reiterated that he wasn’t on the appropriations committee. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Mich., wrote two letters to the park service expressing his concern after the shutdown.
He hadn’t made any such efforts before that. “Under what precedent would he need to contact the Appropriations Committee?” spokesman Brian Patrick said. “Open-air memorials had not been shut down prior to this,” Patrick said. “In terms of NPS shutting down the open-air memorials around the National Mall and urban environments, it seems the action was more of a political statement than a necessary step.”
Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss, also saw no need to get involved in the appropriations until after the shutdown.“After you walk down to the memorial and view it, ask me what it would have taken to keep this site open,” spokesman Adam Buckalew said.
Attempts to contact others who were seen protesting at the memorial in October, including Reps. Steve King, R-Iowa, Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., Rich Nugent, R-Fla., and Louie Gohmert, R-Texas were unsuccessful.
Jarvis testified Oct. 16 that the memorial and other park service facilities were closed for the shutdown because of limited resources. “Prudent and practical steps were taken to secure the life and property of these national icons,” he said.
The Gulf Coast veterans returned to Mississippi and were greeted by hundreds of flag-waving local folks at the airport.
“Supergreat,” Ferencak recalled. “The whole day was so magnificent. . . . I’m still floating.”
What of the appropriations bills? Was there any result from all those basement room hearings or the sifting through dozens of amendments?
Not so far. About half the House Republicans have been in office only since 2010. None has ever worked in a Congress that passed into law any appropriations bills, let alone a majority or all of them.
“They’ve never seen regular order,” Rogers said. “They don’t know what it is.”