Shutting down Washington: Opening a larger debate

Start with the size of federal government. As a result of the shutdown, about 800,000 workers were deemed non-essential or furloughed, including more than 90 percent of workers at the Department of Housing and Urban Development and several other major departments. Some agencies have zero essential workers during the shutdown.
 
It makes you wonder, if these employees and services are non-essential today, what makes them essential a month from now? With the national debt nearing $17 trillion, doesn’t the shutdown provide a useful roadmap for identifying some taxpayer-funded luxuries and programs Washington could potentially live without?
 

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The shutdown has also taught us about the priorities of our government.
 
We've learned the IRS places greater priority on collecting taxes, which they continue to do, than on processing tax refunds, which they do not.
 
And while some government websites continue to operate with no mention of a shutdown, others are offline completely. If you’re looking for information about Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, you’re in luck. Looking for last month’s jobs report? Conveniently for President Obama, that function of government was shut down.
 
Perhaps most baffling to many Americans is the arbitrary nature of what is being shut down – and why.
 
Why have open-air parks like the National Mall, World War II Memorial and Grand Canyon been closed? Does anyone really believe it’s easier and less costly to barricade areas otherwise open 24/7 - and enforce their closures - than it would be to simply grant Americans their right to walk freely on public land? Even some parking lots and scenic lookouts are being barricaded, presumably with “essential” federal workers.
 
Even some private businesses have been targeted and impacted. One of the most egregious examples is the shutdown of Philadelphia’s City Tavern, a favorite gathering spot of the Founding Fathers. The National Parks Service owns the building because it’s a historic landmark, but the tavern and restaurant are privately owned and operated.  Yet in a shutdown of common sense, the privately operated Tavern has been ordered closed down since the shutdown began October 1.
 
About 25 miles away is Valley Forge, where George Washington famously crossed the Delaware River over 200 years ago. Today, Americans can’t even cross a barricade to go for a jog without being fined $100 by park rangers, as one runner recently discovered. The most ironic part: during a shutdown caused partially by a debate over health care, the runner was simply trying to stay physically fit.
 
Fortunately, there is one exception to the shutdown of many national parks and memorials. They do remain open for First Amendment activities, which raises another question: what exactly is a "First Amendment activity?" If two or more Americans gather at the Grand Canyon and cause no disruption, aren’t they peaceably assembling? If a veteran – or any individual – bows to pray at the Vietnam Wall, couldn’t they be exercising religion? Come to think of it, if any American decided to show up at a closed national park or memorial simply to protest the absurdity of their closure, wouldn’t such action qualify as both free speech and petitioning their government for a redress of grievances?
 
Americans should beware of invoking their free speech rights though. At Yellowstone, armed park rangers recently ordered some tourists not to take any photographs. Apparently in a shutdown, a photo isn’t worth a thousand words.
 
Of course, much of this shutdown silliness didn't have to happen. Websites could have remained online, even without regular updates. Parks could have remained open, even if they didn't offer guided tours or other services. President Obama unilaterally granted a one-year delay to his health care law's employer mandate and federal agencies frequently grant regulatory waivers on a wide range of issues. So why not take action to correct these unnecessary closures? 
 
It's simple. The Obama Administration thinks they can gain leverage and "win" the shutdown by causing as much pain as possible. As one anonymous and disgusted park ranger was quoted saying, "We’ve been told to make life as difficult for people as we can.”
 
President Obama’s message to Americans is clear: take a hike. Just don't do it in a National Park.

Meyer is a Republican media consultant and political strategist based in Washington, D.C.

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