Sunday, October 06, 2013

Why They're Blocking Off Monuments

After hearing about such puzzling government actions as blocking off open-air monuments and trying to close the Bay of Florida; I, like a lot of citizens, found myself wondering what train of thought led them to that. After all, these monuments and properties are Public property. They belong to all citizens of the United States. We have no monarch, so they do not belong to "the Crown", nor does "the Government" own them apart from the People.

This is even more puzzling in the situation of a partial government "shutdown", since the conceit here is that the government doesn't have the money to manage people; so how could it have the money to post more people to block access? I assumed, like many, that the President ordered these closings. I assumed that such an order must come from the Office of the President, but I don't like assuming. I wanted to find out.

Fortunately, not every office is closed. The Office of the President is one of those functions that is exempt from this sort of thing. So the website is still up and running. If you visit you'll find that though it's exempt they put up a gimpy message like many non-exempt agencies.

This is sitting on the website, under the Office of Management and Budget (OMB):

The link is to a PDF file. Don't worry, it's not hacking and not infringement... it's a public document. Though documents can be classified, government documents are in the public domain.

This memorandum from the White House OMB was published Sept 17, 2013 (a couple of weeks before the partial government shutdown). It links to a circular (OMB Circular A-11 [PDF] ), a booklet called Guidance for Shutdown Furloughs from the Office of Personnel Management [PDF]. OMB Circular A-11 links to an opinion from the Justice Department dated 1995.

This document explains why we're seeing that gimpy message on government websites that could function perfectly normally during the shutdown. But it's Question 5 on page 14 of the memo that piqued my interest.
Q5. What if the cost of shutting down a website exceeds the cost of maintaining services? 
A5. The determination of which services continue during an appropriations lapse is not affected by whether the costs of shutdown exceed the costs of maintaining services.
OK, so they don't care if it cost more to shutdown or not, but this doesn't say who decided to keep things open and where the money's coming from. More reading...

According to OMB Circular A-11:
"Each agency head must determine the specific actions that will be taken; however, all your actions must contribute to an orderly shutdown of the agency and give primary consideration to protecting life and safeguarding Government property and records."
According to the OMB memorandum:
"There are very limited circumstances under which such work may continue, notwithstanding the lapse in appropriations..."
under which is listed:
"1. An "orderly shutdown" when there has been a lapse in appropriations,"
Taken together, this would appear to me to mean that if some agency yahoo decides that paying cops to cordon off and guard monuments is part of an "orderly shutdown" because it is "safeguarding Government property", he can do that, and still incur the obligation to pay, though according to the memos he can't "disburse the funds" (write the check).

HOWEVER, the memorandum goes on to say,
"OMB Circular A-ll requires agencies to provide OMB with written justification for the conduct of orderly shutdown activities in excess of a half-day"
So while this isn't a smoking gun, according to the White House's published documents, it looks like the authorization for those ridiculous closing had to come from the White House. As to whether the idea came from the White House, that doesn't really matter. by authorizing it and being in charge, they own the idea. It also doesn't mean that the President personally made that decision; Sylvia M. Burwell issued the memo. However we can assume the President is briefed daily, and has access to the media like everyone else. If he didn't order it, he knows about it, and again, he's in charge of the directives that comes out of that building. It's one of those things that comes with being the boss.

As to the motivation... that's speculation. But we already know from the sequestration that the Administration wants people to feel the pain. I'm convinced they're deliberately making the closings as artificially inconvenient as they possibly can. Like a theme park closing for the Winter, they want to lock the gates and exclude the People.

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