WASHINGTON — Even as a deal was in the works to end the federal government shutdown, bickering continued Wednesday morning -- over the closing of national parks.
House Republicans accused the National Park Service of barricading open-air monuments such as the World War II memorial in Washington to make the shutdown "as painful and visible as possible.''
But Democrats ridiculed the hearing, coming as congressional leaders scrambled to avert a potentially economically calamitous default on the national debt and end the 16-day government shutdown.
"This is a Kafka-esque moment,'' said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.).
"The solution isn't to have a hearing to pillory somebody for doing his job,'' Connolly said. "The solution is to reopen this government without condition, to avoid default, without condition, and get on with the business of governance before we destroy all confidence in this legislative body.''
Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, complained about barricading of open-air memorials on the National Mall, such as the Lincoln Memorial and the World War II memorial, that are usually accessible around the clock.
National Park Service director Jonathan Jarvis defended his actions.
"There's no politics involved here,'' he told lawmakers.
Noting there are 12 of the usual 300 Park Service employees working during the shutdown to protect monuments on the National Mall, he said, "I cannot protect these monuments, memorials to the standard that this country expects me to do so.''
"It pains us to not be able to invite the American public into their national parks,'' he added.
It was unusual for the park service to undergo such harsh criticism. Jarvis underwent the kind of grilling that the heads of less popular agencies such as the IRS would receive, with Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, complaining that he had to issue a subpoena to compel Jarvis' appearance.
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) blamed Republicans for "the Seinfeld shutdown, or the shutdown about nothing,'' citing GOP insistence on defunding Obamacare as a condition for keeping open the government. DeFazio then held up a mirror, inviting Republicans to see who was responsible for the closing of national parks.
"We seem to be here at this hearing functioning in an alternative universe,'' said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.).
The shutdown forced the closure of 401 national parks, from Valley Forge to Yosemite, and the furlough of 20,000 park service employees, though some parks, such as the Statue of Liberty and Grand Canyon, have reopened with states agreeing to pay the costs.
After Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas) confronted a park ranger at the barricaded World War II memorial in the first days of the shutdown, the Park Service has allowed veterans' groups to enter the World War II memorial "to conduct 1st Amendment activities.''