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A solution to parks' shutdown

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By Jerry Ellig
Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

President Obama's critics dismiss the closing of iconic monuments and attractions as a cynical political ploy to maximize the perceived pain of a partial government shutdown. That's only partly right. These actions reflect ideological motivations that have never before guided shutdown strategy.

During the Clinton administration, I worked for the federal government. Those of us who labored on the staff of Congress' Joint Economic Committee had to stay home because we were “nonessential.” Despite the political bloviation about how the shutdown would tank the economy, apparently Congress didn't need economic advice during the shutdown. Had it considered some guidance on government land use and privatization, however, some of the current political gamesmanship may have been mitigated.

The 1995-96 shutdown caused tremendous hardship. But this time, the shutdown isn't affecting just federal employees and operations. The government also sought the shutdown of privately owned and privately funded facilities by controlling access to them.

One prominent closure was the open-air World War II Memorial (until it was stormed by D-Day veterans in wheelchairs). Private funds built the memorial, but it sits on federal land in the middle of the National Mall.

Another brief victim was George Washington's home at Mt. Vernon, owned and operated by the Mt. Vernon Ladies' Association, a private nonprofit founded in 1853. The National Park Service barricaded Mt. Vernon's parking lots. Mt. Vernon is not owned by the National Park Service and receives no federal money, but the parking lots are on federal land.

Privately owned Historic Jamestowne, site of the first permanent English-speaking settlement in the United States, is closed because visitors have to drive through a national park to get there. Some private campgrounds and inns are also closed for the first time during a shutdown because they're on federal land.

These aren't cynical political moves. They are logical outgrowths of an ideology articulated in the president's famous “you didn't build that” speech. The language chiding selfish business owners who think government deserves no credit for their accomplishments could just as well have been directed to the Mt. Vernon Ladies' Association: “Somebody invested in roads and bridges — you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

Sounds like a perfectly sensible reason for the government to block off access to Mt. Vernon's parking lots, privately funded memorials and privately run campgrounds. Maybe the next step could be setting up blockades at the entrance ramps of interstate highways. While we're at it, pull the plug on the Internet, since federal dollars funded the original networks.

When the administration's defenders predict calamity from a government shutdown or sequester or any other reduction in government activity, they're not being cynical. They know it can happen because a federal government that controls access can deny access.

By removing the government's control over access, privatization could eliminate some enticing opportunities to promote political polarization. Why not sell (or give) the Mt. Vernon parking lots to the nonprofit that owns Mt. Vernon? Why not sell some campgrounds and inns at national forests to the lessees who operate them (with deed restrictions to ensure they don't get turned into theme parks)? At the very least, Congress should give the nonprofit and for-profit operators of such facilities a legally enforceable guarantee that the federal government cannot cut off access in the future.

Jerry Ellig is a senior research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

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