SHUTDOWN: Stalemate in D.C. closes Hoover Complex by Gregory R. Norfleet · News · October 04, 2013
The federal government shutdown that kicked in at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday affects some 800,000 federal workers nationwide, 9,000 in Iowa and 33 in West Branch.
Herbert Hoover National Historic Site and Herbert Hoover Presidential Library-Museum put up signs and barricades Tuesday morning, even while residents stepped around them for their daily walks.
The shutdown sends home 16 employees of the Library-Museum and 11 from the Hoover Park. NPS Superintendent Pete Swisher said another six part-time/seasonal workers also got furlough notices, though they know each year on Oct. 1 their hours end or are reduced.
Library Director Thomas Schwartz said Monday he would on Tuesday pass out furlough letters to his staff, except for Facility Manager Rollie Owen, who is considered an “essential” employee under the shutdown. Also, archivist Lynn Smith, who handles specially protected documents in the library, is “on call.”
Swisher said the park has two “essential” employees: Chief Ranger Mike Wilson, who oversees security, and maintenance mechanic Daris Honemann.
Both Swisher and Schwartz, despite holding top positions in the Hoover Complex, also are being furloughed.
U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack (D-Iowa City), responding to the West Branch Times, said in a statement that he finds it “disheartening” to see closing Hoover among the “side effects of the reckless behavior in Washington that caused the shutdown in the first place.”
“It is unfortunate that school groups and tourists won’t be able to witness a part of our state’s history during this time,” he said. “The museum’s barricaded parking lot is a sad symbol of the greater problem facing our nation.”
He said he will “continue to work to bridge the differences in Washington to put an end to these irresponsible practices so the hardworking men and women who have been furloughed can get back to work and visitors can again enjoy the Museum and Library’s offerings.”
“It is time for Washington to refocus on job creation like those the museum brings to the community,” Loebsack said.
Schwartz said the shutdown comes at a time when the Library-Museum has seen an increase in visitors. For the past three years, the library has seen between 3,800 to 4,200 visitors per month; this past month, however, numbers were likely to reach 5,000 visitors.
“Our numbers are up 30 to 38 percent from the previous year,” he said. “The impact (from the shutdown) means we’ll have to turn someone away. People will obviously take with them a certain perception of customer service. It’s not good for people who plan a trip and our doors are closed.”
He said large groups of visitors, like school field trips, were notified in advance of the shutdown.
“We had groups scheduled throughout the week,” Schwartz said. “That’s one growth section of attendance and we obviously want to maintain that.”
Swisher said Monday that the Hoover gravesite and birthplace cottage will still have lights shining on them at night, but, otherwise, the park will be closed.
Walkers, joggers and cyclists will be “unable to access the park,” he said. The barricades went up at more than a dozen entryways throughout the 181-acre park.
“Technically the park is closed,” he said. “We ask folks not to access the park.”
He said there is a lot of activity in the park at night, especially from people wanting to exercise. But restrooms and picnic shelters will be locked or blocked off, Swisher said.
Some 80 to 100 cars pull off Interstate 80 each day, the superintendent said. While that is lower than the summer months, it is higher than when attendance drops off after Christmas.
Members of the Hoover Complex staff came in for four hours Tuesday to takes steps to close the park and library, he said, but Swisher does not like to view his staff as “non-essential.”
“We feel the work we do is important,” he said. “It’s worth spreading the word about Hoover.”
Both the Library-Museum and Hoover Park posted notices on their respective Facebook pages, announcing they are closed “due to the federal government shutdown.”
The shutdown comes from the U.S. House and Senate trying to negotiate a budget. Unable to reach an agreement, they instead passed a stopgap measure, also known as a continuing resolution, back in March that expired at the end of the day Sept. 30.
Certain parts of the government are only funded for a year at a time, like the Hoover Complex, so Congress must pass a spending bill to continue their funding or those agencies must shut down.
And while some agencies and, thus, their workers are considered “non-essential” — some call them “non-excepted” — a few staff continue to come to work because they are considered “essential,” but they work without pay. If and when Congress approves funding for the Hoover Complex, those essential employees will be paid retroactively.
There have been 17 government shutdowns, the longest of which lasted 21 days in 1995-96. The Hoover Complex and other agencies were almost shut down in April 2011, but a last-minute deal prevented it.
‘Hopeful ... it can reopen’
Hoover Association Executive Director Jerry Fleagle saw the empty parking lot Tuesday morning.
“It seemed pretty eerie this morning as I looked out the window and so no traffic, no people out walking,” he said. “It’s eerily quiet.”
Fleagle said he is “disappointed” that the shutdown closed the park and museum.
“It’s not our call to make, that’s the federal government,” he said. “Our office is still open and we are allowed access in and out of the park (to get to the Association office). But we’ve got a couple of events coming up in October that are in danger right now.”
The Hoover Association is a private fundraising organization that helps organize Hoover’s Hometown Days and hosts other events at the Library-Museum and in the Hoover Park. It is not subject to the federal shutdown, but with the shutdown cannot use park facilities.
The annual Uncommon Student Award presentations are set for Saturday, Oct. 12, though Fleagle said the Association will move the event to the Brick Arch Winery if necessary.
The Association also planned to mark the anniversary of Hoover’s death on Oct. 20 at the gravesite, complete with a speaker and bagpipe music.
“We’re hopeful things can get resolved and it can reopen as soon as possible,” he said.
The executive director also noted that attendance has been on the upswing, mostly due to an increase in school trips.
“It’s unfortunate for the kids,” he said. “(As a child) you look forward to those field trips. We had two or three tour buses scheduled this week, too. And look at the potential tourism dollars we’re losing on Main Street as well.”
Fleagle said “everyone cares” about the stalemate in Washington.
“Regardless of which side you’re on, it’s all about politics at this point,” he said. “Unless the polls move, or the public moves them one way or another, neither one wants to (budge) … they don’t even want to talk. It’s all about posturing.”
‘Probably worth it’
One man, who said he and his wife have for years walked daily in the park, wished to remain unidentified as he praised Congressional Republican efforts to leverage the shutdown to change the Affordable Care Act.
“This is the way things operate, I guess,” the man said. “But to get rid of Obamacare, it’s probably worth it. … I think Obama and the Senate Democrats are ridiculous in their refusal to negotiate. The House is reasonable to delay the individual mandate for a year and not have special privileges for Congress and staff (in the form of federal money helping pay the cost of health care premiums).”
Thad Piegors, who moved to West Branch a month ago, takes walks in the park with family members daily as well, as their back yard backs up to the historic site.
“People in Washington need to work with each other instead of politicking all the time,” he said. “It’s starting to impact us locally.”
He pointed out that the financial problems of Washington are already evident in the Hoover birthplace cottage, where Plexiglass partitions keep visitors from walking through the home.
Main Street West Branch Program Director Mackenzie Krob called the shutdown “an unfortunate situation.”
“The downtown and the park are really working hard to team up and be on the same page to get visitors to come to downtown and vice-versa,” she said. “Hopefully this will be a little hiccup in that and we will continue forward.”
She said MSWB and the Hoover Complex are working together on projects, like updating tourism components, which are now postponed.
“I drove by the park (Tuesday) morning and it made me sick to see those barricades,” she said. “It’s like you’re banned from the park, and it’s such a vital piece of West Branch. It’s taken so many years to build that piece — it’s a sad day.”
West Branch schoolchildren visit the site throughout the year, and school Superintendent Kevin Hatfield said his first reaction was that he “feels bad for Mr. Swisher and his staff.”
“(Swisher) had no choice to but to move forward and do things that, deep down, he did not want to do,” he said.
But the superintendent said he worries about Congress again passing a deadline without a spending agreement in place.
“It’s disappointing that we get the the point that every five months or so we have to make these decisions on a national level,” Hatfield said.
He noted that high school science teacher Lynette Cummings took decibel readings over the summer at the Hoover Park as part of a soundscape study, and now that work is on hold.
Hatfield said school groups visited the site within the last 10 days, and now he fears that the shutdown may cancel other trips.
‘Unacceptable and absurd’
State Sen. Bob Dvorsky (D-Iowa City) lays blame on Republicans in the U.S. House wanting to make changes to ACA.
“I don’t understand this at all, especially as a legislator,” he said. “You can disagree on policies, but shutting down government is not your job. The whole thing on Obamacare baffles me, too. We’ve had two elections and one Supreme Court ruling, so it’s settled law.”
He separated Iowa Republicans from that criticism.
“One thing is certain: I’m glad House Republicans in Iowa are far more responsible than House Republicans in the U.S. Congress,” he said. “They actually legislate and get things done.”
Dvorsky said he wished to apologize to the staff of the Hoover Complex, even though there is little he can do to help.
“I know that the superintendent (Pete Swisher) is a very nice man, and on behalf of the Iowa legislature, we’re sorry,” he said. “This is a total inconvenience. (The Republican caucus) must not value these workers or what they do. We certainly do value (them).”
State Rep. Robert “Bobby” Kaufmann (R-Wilton) said he talked to many constituents who want to know how the shutdown will affect them, as well as his thoughts. Kaufmann called on the U.S. Congress to stop accepting salaries as long as the shutdown continues.
“That’s how it’s worked in Iowa,” he said. “If you don’t do your job, you don’t get paid, and that’s gotten a great response so far.”
He called it “unacceptable and absurd” that West Branch must be subjected to such a decision in Washington D.C.
“In Iowa, we’re expected to get along in a split government,” he said. “We always come to a resolution.”
Kaufmann called it “inexcusable” that the U.S. Congress cannot find a solution to the continuing resolution on the budget yet still expects to get paid while the Hoover Complex staffers “sit at home.”
“It is unconscionable (Hoover staff) has to go through this,” he said. “While I don’t have any direct powers over Washington D.C., I will be loud, vocal and persistent.”
Loebsack criticized House Speaker John Boehner for sending the spending bill back to committee.
“Due to repeated demands by the Tea Party, House Republicans were not willing to put a clean continuing resolution to avoid this manufactured crisis for a vote,” he said. “It is unconscionable that we have come to this point. Because of the reckless actions by the Tea Party, the latest move by Speaker Boehner serves one purpose: to try and shift blame away from Republicans and the brinksmanship they have caused.”
Loebsack called the shutdown a “manufactured crisis that Iowans and our economy cannot afford.”
“Washington must re-focus its energy on job creation and fixing the economy,” he wrote in the statement. “I will work to bridge the differences and put an end to these irresponsible practices and get the basic work done that the American people expect of Congress.”