How Trump Will Try to Minimize a Government Shutdown

The administration plans to keep national parks and public lands partially open even without congressional funding, drawing criticism from Sally Jewell, the former secretary of the interior.

A National Parks worker in front of the blocked-off Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The Obama administration blocked off national memorials during the government shutdown in 2013. (Carolyn Kaster / AP)

A government shutdown under Donald Trump might look very different from the one that occurred under Barack Obama.

When conservatives in Congress refused to fund the government in 2013, among the first and most visible victims were tourists who had planned trips to national parks, museums, and monuments. Vacations were ruined and weddings cancelled. The Obama administration even placed barricades around memorials on the National Mall, infuriating Republicans who accused the president of maximizing inconvenience to stoke the public’s anger at Congress.

The Trump administration is planning another approach. Even if the House and Senate fail to fund the government by a midnight-Friday deadline, national parks, monuments, and memorials won’t shut down completely—and some might remain fully accessible to the public.

“We fully expect the government to remain open. However, in the event of a shutdown, national parks and other public lands will remain as accessible as possible while still following all applicable laws and procedures,” said Heather Swift, a spokeswoman for the Department of the Interior. “The American public and especially our veterans who come to our nation’s capital should find war memorials and open-air parks open to the public. Additionally, many of our national parks, refuges, and other public lands will still try to allow limited access wherever possible.”

The department doesn’t have a list of what will remain open and what won’t, but the general rule is that the sites that require the least staffing will be the most accessible. Prime examples in Washington are the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial, and the World War II Memorial; tourists can see all four without stopping first in a visitor’s center or passing through a manned security gate. Across the country, many parks have concessions that are privately operated, and those that don’t require assistance from federal employees—such as unlocking gates or clearing snow—may remain open. Officials said they are prioritizing “the most accessible and iconic areas” of parks, and they’ll do the same with federal lands, which account for 20 percent of the nation’s land mass.

While a majority of the nation’s more than 800,000 federal workers would be furloughed during a shutdown, law-enforcement officers and other “essential” employees would be exempt.

The administration’s shutdown plans were first reported Thursday by The Washington Post. The strategy is designed not only to reduce inconvenience to travelers, but also to reduce Democrats’ political leverage in the showdown on Capitol Hill. As the party of limited government, Republicans have taken the blame for shutdowns in the recent past, including the one in 2013. So in a GOP administration, it’s in the party’s interest to make a shutdown seem as painless as possible.

Trump and Republican leaders in Congress have warned about the impact of a possible lapse in funding on the military, but unlike officials in the Obama administration, they have downplayed the effect on domestic agencies. “A short-term shutdown would not affect anybody’s checks,” Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget director, said Wednesday on the Fox Business Network. A conservative former congressman who backed the 2013 shutdown, Mulvaney noted that the next pay date for federal workers isn’t for another week after the deadline.

But the administration’s move to keep national parks and lands partially open drew immediate criticism from Democrats, who questioned whether it would be legal under federal law and suggested it would risk both public safety and the security of the parks. “If we do have a shutdown, the potential harms to natural and historic resources—and to public safety—are even worse than they’d normally be because this administration is in over its head, is unprofessional, and has no plan in place,” said Representative Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee. “Allowing agencies to drift without clear guidance during a shutdown the president’s party created is the worst way to govern, and it looks like that’s where we’re headed.”

The federal Antideficiency Act controls what parts of the government can continue operating during a lapse in appropriations from Congress. Programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security are funded through mandatory spending, although the offices that process applications and payments would close. The military is largely unaffected, though paychecks could be delayed. (Congress usually makes sure that even furloughed employees are paid retroactively for the days they missed.)

Critics of the Trump plan for national parks include Sally Jewell, the former secretary of the interior under Obama who oversaw the department during the 2013 shutdown. “You will have risk to the public as well as risk to the resource,” Jewell said Thursday in an interview. “Because there just is not enough law-enforcement people to make sure the resource is protected.”

Jewell said the Obama administration investigated the possibility of keeping some parks open with limited staff but were told it would not be safe. In many parks, unarmed staff and volunteers are needed to prevent vandalism, keep hikers from getting lost, and clear out garbage and clean bathrooms. “It’s naive for folks to believe that we can protect these assets and do what is required by law with just law-enforcement staff,” Jewell said. “It’s not realistic, and I think it’s a lack of understanding of the roles that so many people play in the parks and, frankly, what [roles] volunteers play in the parks as well.”

In 2013, Jewell worked with the governor of Utah and six other states to keep their most popular parks and monuments open during the 16-day shutdown, which occurred during peak tourist season in parts of the West. Back then, the states agreed to pick up the full cost of operating the parks. And at least in Utah, the state government ended up earning more in sales taxes than it paid to keep the parks open.

Jewell took particular exception to the GOP charge that the Obama administration closed off more public areas than it needed to. “That’s complete and utter nonsense,” she told me. “If I wanted to make it painful, why would I be up all night, frankly, negotiating with states? Why would the Treasury Department stay open until midnight to accept payments to the states?”

She recalled an incident caught on camera during the 2013 shutdown in which a visitor to the closed-off National Mall shouted at a federal worker, “You should be ashamed of yourself!” Although the administration did erect barricades, Jewell said they didn’t stop people from walking around them to see the memorials. At one point, she alleged, a Republican congressman actually closed a barricade himself so that he could be filmed opening it for the public.

It is those kind of stunts that the Trump administration is trying to avoid if a shutdown occurs. “They want to reduce the heat,” Jewell said, “because the heat was significant last time.”