Dem chairwoman seeks watchdog probe of Park Service’s shutdown operations

Dem chairwoman seeks watchdog probe of Park Service’s shutdown operations
© Greg Nash

The top House Democrat overseeing the National Park Service’s (NPS) funding is formally asking for an official probe of the Trump administration’s decision to use agency entrance fees to operate parks during the government shutdown.

Rep. Betty McCollumBetty Louise McCollumLawmakers stunned by national park shutdown funding reversal Overnight Energy: GOP pushes back on climate | 2018 was fourth hottest year on record | Park Service reverses on using fees Park Service backtracks, won’t use entrance fees to pay for shutdown operations MORE (D-Minn.), chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee’s subpanel for the Interior Department, announced her intent to seek a Government Accountability Office (GAO) probe after a Wednesday hearing on the use of the fees.

“I’m more than convinced, sadly, that the administration has ignored the law and the policies that the agencies have had in place for years to protect our citizens and our public lands,” she said as she closed the hearing.

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“I believe the decision was made to open up the parks to mitigate the impacts of the Trump shutdown, and I fear that the administration is willfully ignoring the counsel of dedicated men and women who work every day in the parks,” she continued.

McCollum said earlier in the hearing that it’s important for Congress to assert its power of the purse under the Constitution, which states that federal agencies cannot spend money unless Congress appropriates it.

“The law prohibits the executive branch from spending federal tax dollars unless those dollars have been expressly appropriated by Congress,” she said. “Money can only be used for specific purposes authorized by Congress.”

McCollum said using the fees could violate laws like the Antideficiency Act and the Purpose Statute of 1809, which put strict limitations on how agencies spend money.

In response to problems at national parks like overflowing toilets, trash and damage to important resources, acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt instructed parks to dip into the fees they collect under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act and use that money for operational purposes like cleaning bathrooms and law enforcement.

McCollum and other Democrats say that was short-sighted and likely illegal.

Interior officials are reexamining the use of fees and determining whether it was legal to do so, according to a document obtained recently by The Hill.

A GAO official who testified at Wednesday’s hearing, Julie Matta, said was not able to provide a full legal opinion on the matter.

Some Republicans defended the Trump administration’s decision to use recreation fee money.

“In passing the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, Congress authorized the use of fees for the following variety of purposes: repair, maintenance, facility enhancement, visitor access, health, safety, interpretation, visitor information, visitor service, signs and law enforcement,” Rep. David JoyceDavid Patrick JoyceDem chairwoman seeks watchdog probe of Park Service’s shutdown operations Marijuana industry boosts DC lobbying team Here are the lawmakers who will forfeit their salaries during the shutdown MORE (Ohio), the subcommittee’s top Republican, said at the hearing.

Bernhardt’s instructions, Joyce said, “seem entirely consistent with the activities authorized by Congress.”

Rep. Mike SimpsonMIchael (Mike) Keith SimpsonPress: Democrats dare to think big Dem chairwoman seeks watchdog probe of Park Service’s shutdown operations House votes on 10th bill to reopen government MORE (R-Idaho) speculated that the Park Service may be able to justify bringing back staff under existing shutdown furlough exemptions for health and safety, citing issues like overflowing toilets and damage to trees.

“I guess the compromise solution that we’re all seeking here is, don’t shut the damn government down. And these questions wouldn’t be necessary,” Simpson commented.