Closing The Memorials

Some time ago I mentioned the fabled Washington, D.C. tale about laying off the elevator operator of the Washington Monument.  If funding was cut for the Department of Interior, the tale went, the elevator operator would top the layoff list — the reasoning being that inconvenienced tourists would apply pressure to restore the funding so they could ride in comfort to the top of the towering obelisk at the center of the National Mall.

With the recent partial government shutdown, the bureaucrats apparently went one step farther.  They closed the open memorials along the Washington, D.C. National Mall, including the vast World War II Memorial.  It’s not entirely clear why these open-air memorials would need to be closed; the stated reason was that the National Park Service was worried about the security of the memorials and the safety of visitors without the normal staff there.  So, some apparently essential employees had to erect physical barricades to keep people out who would otherwise be able to walk freely through the memorials, without the assistance of federal employees.

Then, groups of veterans appeared — World War II veterans, and Korean War veterans, and their families.  Elderly men in wheelchairs and using canes, they had traveled far to pay tribute and remember their service to their country, only to be denied entry by the barricades and signs.  After they were initially rebuffed, someone moved the barricades and the veterans poured through, to recall their service and lay the wreaths in honor of their fallen comrades, without any security or safety issues.

It was an embarrassing incident for our federal government, and it showed that the elevator operator theory only works when the federal funding reason for the inconvenience seems plausible.  When open air memorials are unnecessarily barricaded, and aged, stooped veterans wearing their medals and insignia are denied entry to war memorials that were built to honor their service, the elevator operator theory suddenly doesn’t seem like such a good idea, does it?

The Elevator Operator At The Washington Monument

The Washington Monument

The Washington Monument

The dire warnings from California (and probably elsewhere) about the government services that will be cut if tax increases aren’t forthcoming reminds me of 1981, when I began working on Capitol Hill for Congressman Wylie. At that time, President Reagan was trying to push through budget cuts in programs like milk price supports. One of the great stories (and, I think, apocryphal yet expressive of a deeper truth) about how turf-protecting bureaucrats react to proposed budget cuts involved the elevator operator at the Washington Monument. The story was that if anyone raised the possibility of cutting the budget for the Department of the Interior, the first person whose job would be cut would be that poor elevator operator. Visitors to the Monument then would have to climb all of the 897 steps to the top — and would complain to their elected representatives, who would cave in and restore the funding. The point is that bureaucrats often select and publicize budget cuts that will have the maximum negative impact on the maximum number of people as a passive-aggressive protest of the budget cuts, rather than making a legitimate effort to find ways for governmental entities to save money, reduce costs, and live within their means. I take it with a grain of salt when politicians or school board officials say that their first option to balance budgets after tax increases fail at the polls is to open prison doors, cut police forces, or eliminate high school football teams.