News Column

Vets Breach Barricades, D.C. Workers Go Home

October 1, 2013

Dan Roberts and Paul Lewis, Washington

National World War II Memorial, Washington, D.C. (photo: Lipton sale, Creative Commons)

The 92 elderly war veterans who had travelled to Washington from the gulf coast of Mississippi were not going to let a manufactured political row in the United States Congress prevent them from paying tribute to their comrades. They had come thousands of miles in four tour buses, many in wheelchairs, most of them frail, and all of them determined not to be held back by the barriers that closed off the World War II Memorial.

Who let them past those barriers remains unclear. Someone said it was a congressman, or maybe a sympathetic park police officer. But a cheer went up and the men surged forward in an act of civil disobedience that captured growing public anger toward an increasingly dysfunctional Congress.

Like all federal monuments, national parks and museums across the US, the World War II Memorial was closed yesterday, shut by the partial closure of government services that stemmed from the failure of Congress to pass a budget resolution by midnight on Monday that would have ensured their continued funding.

The breaching of the memorial barriers was a symbolic gesture. But for hundreds of thousands of federal workers, the government shutdown, blamed by President Obama on a hardline group of Republicans determined to wreck his healthcare reforms by "holding the country to ransom", is much more than a stunt.

"We don't know how long this is going to last and we've got no idea how we are going to pay the bills," said Terry Baber, 55, an electrician, who admitted to being "pretty ticked off" as he emerged from the American History Museum. Like all Smithsonian institutions in Washington, the museum will be closed for the duration of the shutdown. "I've got a son in college and I've got to pay his room and board. We still have to eat. We still need fuel for our cars," he said.

By mid-morning, the streets of downtown Washington DC were thronging with government workers who had been ordered to return home on "furlough". Federal offices from the White House to obscure government agencies were operating with a skeleton staff.

One woman, a chemist at the US environmental agency, was standing by the side of the road with five cardboard boxes filled with office plants. "If we have to be gone for a month, I don't want to return to find them dead," she said. Like thousands of others, the woman, in her 50s, had been told to record a fresh voicemail message, place an out-of-office alert on her email, turn off her computer and go home.

Furloughed employees were asked to sign copies of a letter from their human resources departments and ordered not to used any government equipment - including BlackBerrys - during the shutdown. Checking emails or making calls would be a disciplinary offence, they were told.

The mayor of DC, Vincent Gray, declared all city staff as "essential" workers, a legally contentious measure. But it at least kept the city moving and guarded America's capital from some of the more unpleasant consequences of the last shutdown in the mid-1990s, when uncollected rubbish piled up on the street.

Across Washington's National Mall, and outside all of the main public monuments, bewildered-looking tourists had to resort viewing attractions from a distance. At the Lincoln Memorial, the lights quite literally went out, leaving the huge statue of the 16th president in dark shadows.

Robert Smith, 56, who has manned a stall selling pins and badges to raise funds for veterans beside the memorial for the past 26 years, recalled the last shutdown, under President Clinton in 1996. "It wasn't as bad as this," he said. "They weren't stopping buses coming through as they are now. All of us who do business round here are pretty upset."

Steve Cockerton, 58, a social worker from Colchester, was at the start of a three-day visit to Washington. "I don't know much about American politics but it seems a little extreme to me - almost punitive," he said. While visitors seemed perplexed, American tourists seemed more understanding. "This is about the US constitution - we've had to compromise right from the very beginning," said Linda Skoien, 63, from Wisconsin. "Even that man sitting there understood that," she added, pointing to Lincoln.

At the US Capitol, rubbish had started already to pile up in understaffed cafeterias, and the few remaining visitors scurried to find open security entrances.

Politicians, meanwhile, blamed each other. House Republican leaders Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor held a theatrical press conference in front of a row of empty chairs intended to represent missing Senate Democrats, who earlier rejected calls for formal talks while the Republicans continue to hold Obamacare "to ransom".

President Obama held a press conference in the equally theatrical White House Rose Garden to warn that the first shutdown in 17 years threatened lasting damage to the fragile US economy. "As long as I am president I will not give in to reckless demands by the Republican party to deny health insurance to the millions of Americans that cannot afford it," he said.

With neither side showing any sign of backing down, the shutdown could continue until 17 October when Republicans hope that a separate deadline to renew government borrowing authority will bend the will of their opponents.

In the meantime, members of Congress will continue to be paid, unlike the federal workers locked out of their offices around the US. At 11am on Tuesday, Lori Stanislaus walked out of the Jacob K Javits federal building in lower Manhattan, New York, not knowing when she would return. "I don't know if I'm going to get paid," she said. "We got a letter to give our creditors to show we're furloughed federal employees and please be flexible with us in paying our bills."

Stanislaus, 51, is a human resources officer across three different federal agencies. She has been in the job 11 years and has never been furloughed before. "It's a scary thing," she said. "My husband is unemployed. I am the sole breadwinner for a family of five. So yeah, I'd say on a scale of one to 10 how scary is it? 12."

But Stanislaus had a clear idea of who to blame for the shutdown. "The Tea Party assholes that put Obamacare on an appropriations bill need to be shot in the head. The Affordable Care Act is a law already. It's like some last-ditch effort to try to undo what has already been done."

Additional reporting by Adam Gabbatt in New York

(c) 2013 Guardian Newspapers Limited.

Original headline: Veterans breach the barricades as Washington sends workers home: Old soldiers ignore closure but majority of tourists find sites shuttered as government staff wonder how to pay their bills

For more stories covering politics, please see HispanicBusiness' Politics Channel

Source: (c) 2013 Guardian Newspapers Limited.