My life wasn't always centered around travel. My undergraduate studies were in political science and U.S. history and my first post-graduation job was in the White House Press Office. That kept me busy enough M-F, but there was just something special about being around the White House--I was only 21 and not yet jaded in my political outlook--so I also volunteered on select Saturdays to assist with White House tours.
Watching the faces of young and old stepping into the White House for the first time was a lot of fun. I loved sharing historical anecdotes and pointing out secret nooks and crannies to visitors, but what I enjoyed most was standing on the same ground that presidents had occupied since the White House was built in 1800. To think of the history made here--the momentous speeches and contentious negotiations--made the White House my favorite Saturday hangout.
The White House is the temporary home of whoever is elected president, but it belongs to the American people. Opening the White House to school groups and the public for tours marks an important right of citizens. The symbolic importance of being able to visit cannot be underscored. In a way, such visits are the essence of American democracy, that all men are created equal. We have no palaces in this country that we can only visit with the permission of the monarch.
Now, with sequester in effect, the Obama Administration has elected to eliminate White House tours, citing costs. This is an unwarranted and unnecessary move, a jejune temper-tantrum over the fact that the White House could not garner enough support for the second round of revenue increases it sought. Not that the GOP is free from blame in this debacle, but White House tours are under the purview of the White House and to say that it could not muster the $11,000/week from the Secret Service budget to continue these tours is laughable. These tours do come at taxpayer expense, but we need only examine a sampling of other federal expenditures (courtesy of the Wall Street Journal's Kim Strassel) to understand why we've reached the point of sequester:
We've learned that the White House employs three calligraphers, who cumulatively earn $277,000 a year. The Environmental Protection Agency gave $141,000 to fund a Chinese study on swine manure. Part of a $325,000 National Science Foundation outlay went to building a robotic squirrel.
The government gave a $3,700 grant to build a miniature street in West Virginia—out of Legos. It shelled out $500,000 to support specialty shampoo products for cats and dogs. A San Diego outfit got $10,000 for trolley dancing. The feds last year held 894 conferences that each cost more than $100,000—$340 million altogether. But Mr. Obama is too broke to let American kids look around the White House.
Speaking of that, the tour stunt itself is turning into a PR fiasco. ABC reports the cancellations save a total of $18,000 a week. A Forbes opinion piece noted the cost of cutting the tours was equal to about two hours operating Air Force One. Speaker John Boehner twisted the knife, announcing that while Congress was also getting hit by sequester, it had planned wisely, and tours of the Capitol would continue. Come on down folks! Visit the government branch that knows how to prioritize!
To top it off, a group of cherubic sixth-graders from St. Paul's Lutheran School in Waverly, Iowa, became a national sensation in a YouTube video pleading with the White House to reopen tours. "The White House is our house. Please let us visit," they beg in unison. The White House hasn't yet responded, no doubt being too busy overseeing its $27 million project that helped fund pottery classes in Morocco. (No joke.)
I could point to the President's last vacation to Hawaii (cost: $4MN), his recent golf outing with Tiger Woods, or perhaps Vice President Biden's lavish $585,000 hotel bill at the InterContinental Le Grand in Paris last week. Think of the Secret Service expenses on these trips that could have been re-allocated to tours.
I've stayed at the ICH Le Grand--a great hotel to be sure--but 100 rooms? Then another $459,000 at the Hyatt Churchill in London? Of course the Vice President must be protected, but in this time of austerity an entourage of that size is simply an act of hypocrisy--do as we say, not as we do. Sequester mechanics aside, that $1MN+ in hotel costs alone would have sustained the White House tour program for at least one more year.
So the VP is living it up in Paris, the President is golfing with Tiger in Florida, and meanwhile groups of school children who had been eagerly anticipating a tour of the White House during their spring break school trips are being told that there is no money available for tours. Unless it is of Petra, Jordan.
And you wonder why I am jaded?
The House Committee on Oversight (GOP led) put out this highly partisan attack, but it makes a valid point--
The White House won't even fess up to the game they are playing. But we are all taking note of what is going on. And we see that the White House tours cancellations, FAA control tower cutbacks, DHS immigration delays, and TSA hiring freeze is all a calculated move to deliberately inflict damage on the public so that they will blame Republicans and demand change. But my gut tells me the public sees what is going on and the White House will soon regret the petty games it is playing.
I am with the students of Waverly, Iowa--there are far more logical cutbacks that can be made before White House tours are eliminated--and the President's hands are not tied. Maybe the President could have let others tour the White House instead of touring Petra himself. Is that too much to ask for?