The sequester cuts began to hit home for members Tuesday, as House leaders announced budget cutbacks around the Capitol complex and the White House said it would cancel tours starting this weekend.
Stopping White House tours particularly affects lawmakers because constituents go through their members to arrange them and it’s up to congressional offices, not the White House, to call constituents to inform them of the cancellation.
“Basically it creates a constituent relations nightmare,” said one House staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity and is not authorized to speak with the press.
“It’s incumbent on the members’ offices, not the White House, to call them and tell them one by one,” the aide added. “It’s probably like if you’re a high-end car dealer and you have a recall on your cars and you have to call all these people who paid 80 grand for their sports car and tell them there’s a fatal flaw.”
Congressional offices made similar calls last year, when an expiring continuing resolution had the White House threatening to stop tours, although it did not act on that threat at the time.
Come Saturday, staffers answering telephones around Capitol Hill will be fielding calls from frustrated constituents who endured lengthy background checks, booked tickets months in advance and, in some cases, planned their visit to Washington, D.C., solely around a trip to the White House.
That had some members wondering whether President Barack Obama’s administration was playing hardball with the tour cancellation.
Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, said he suspects the White House is engaging in an age-old political trick called the Washington Monument strategy — threatening to shut down popular services, such as the monument, unless budget cuts are reversed.
“It’s the old, ‘If you don’t [approve] this bond levy for the school district, we’re going to eliminate football,’” Simpson said. “I understand the strategy of the administration: They’re trying to make it as ugly as possible to put as much pressure as possible on Republicans to change their position. It’s just not going to happen.”
Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., issued a press release asking whether the White House would still allow celebrities, such as Jay-Z, Beyonce, Katy Perry and Swizz Beatz, to visit the building in exchange for donations.
“Canceling all self-guided White House tours is the latest shameless political stunt by the president, who is twisting basic government efficiency into an extreme consequence,” Graves said. “As the White House doors are slammed in the face of average Americans, I want to know if they will still swing wide open for Hollywood and the liberal elite.”
Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, decided to register his opposition legislatively. He introduced an amendment to the continuing resolution scheduled to be voted on Wednesday that would prohibit any funds in the bill from being used to transport the president to a golf course until White House tours resume.
House Budget ranking member Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., defended the decision as part of necessary cutbacks in the face of the sequester.
“This is what happens when you cut the budget so deeply and so quickly, as opposed to how we’ve done it,” he said. “You’re going to see disruptions increasing.”
Members found out about the cancellations Tuesday afternoon in an email sent from the White House Visitors Office.
“Due to staffing reductions resulting from sequestration, we regret to inform you that White House Tours will be canceled effective Saturday, March 9, 2013 until further notice. Unfortunately, we will not be able to reschedule affected tours,” the notice read. “We very much regret having to take this action, particularly during the popular Spring touring season.”
The same message can be heard on the visitors office’s automated hotline.
The House Administration Committee tried to make the best of the situation, tweeting just after the announcement: “White House cancels tours over sequestration; House Admin welcomes Americans visiting D.C. to tour Capitol instead.”
The committee announced that it will hold a briefing Friday to educate congressional offices about alternative tour destinations near the Capitol, such as the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress.
Chatter in the halls of the Capitol was glib. It has become almost commonplace in recent years, but security staff and tour guides again wondered aloud whether their jobs would be compromised because Republicans and Democrats cannot settle their disputes.
On Tuesday morning, House Administration Chairwoman Candice S. Miller, R-Mich., briefed a closed-door Republican Conference meeting, detailing cuts to member and committee office budgets as well as potential security cutbacks that will have to be put in place, according to sources in the room.
The security concerns could include allowing fewer overtime hours for the Capitol Police and closing certain entrances to the Capitol complex to relieve the guards stationed there.