Thursday, October 10, 2013

Why are the national parks closed while some other government operations are open?

Many people are confused about why some functions of government are shut down but others stay open.  For example, air traffic controllers are still on the job but then national parks are closed.  You can get a complete list of what is open and closed here:
Are these just arbitrary decisions by Obama being mean and spiteful and “punishing” Americans? Nope.  What stays open and what closes during a shutdown is determined by law, specifically by provisions of the Anti-Defciency Act  31 U.S.C. § 1341 and legal interpretations of that law.  You can read about this law at these to sites: 
The discussion of the Anti-Deficiency Act begins on page 6-34 and includes a summary of court rulings and legal interpretations.

Here is a summary of the key provisions of the law in regard to the shutdown. In its current form, the law prohibits:
  • Making or authorizing an expenditure from, or creating or authorizing an obligation under, any appropriation or fund in excess of the amount available in the appropriation or fund unless authorized by law.  31 U.S.C. § 1341(a)(1)(A).
  • Involving the government in any contract or other obligation for the payment of money for any purpose in advance of appropriations made for such purpose, unless the contract or obligation is authorized by law.  31 U.S.C. § 1341(a)(1)(B).
  • Accepting voluntary services for the United States, or employing personal services in excess of that authorized by law, except in cases of emergency involving the safety of human life or the protection of property.  31 U.S.C. § 1342.
  • Making obligations or expenditures in excess of an apportionment or reapportionment, or in excess of the amount permitted by agency regulations. 31 U.S.C. § 1517(a).
The act provides penalties including fines and imprisonment for those government employees that are found guilty of violating the act.

The phrase except in cases of emergency involving the safety of human life or the protection of property is key to understanding why some functions of the federal government have continued to operate and some have not.  Air Traffic Controllers are consider essential to protect "the safety of human life" (i.e., People flying on airplanes.)  The national parks are closed because the public property (the parks and monuments) can be protected from such things as acts of vandalism simply by locking people out. Now, you may differ with that legal interpretation.  You may think that the law could be interpreted broadly to allow such functions as the National Park Service to continue to operate.  However, the legal interpretation is as it is.   It is really that simple.  Congress can change the law.  Congress could say, in the case of a shutdown the President can decide.  But, that is not what the law says now. 
There is a simple solution to the whole shut down.  Republican leaders can just bring a bill for a clean resolution to the floor of the House.  It will pass.  The government will open.  The only people standing in the way are a few (30 or 40) members of the House who have their heads screwed on wrong.  They need help, not power.

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