The White House tour is a civics lesson on American democracy. And starting Saturday, when 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. shuts its doors to the public, that lesson will focus on the dysfunctional state of the union.
The Obama administration announced this week that it would indefinitely suspend all tours of the president's residence to help the nation cope with $85 billion in mandatory across-the-board budget cuts known as the sequester.
Across the country, parents and students preparing for spring-break trips to Washington were aghast.
“Kids very bummed out,” Parag Manihar of Irving, Tex., wrote on Twitter in reference to his two young sons, who will be visiting the nation's capital for the first time next week.
“My 6-year-old wants to see the White House and the Statue of Liberty,” Manihar said in an interview. “Now I cannot honestly explain to them why it was canceled. At their age, they do not understand the sequester.”
Administration officials have sounded alarms about the potential impact of the cuts on ordinary Americans, from long security lines at airports to teacher layoffs to Pentagon furloughs.
But it was the cancellation of the tours — leaving tens of thousands of ticket-holders out of luck — that set off the latest round of finger-pointing
Administration officials say the decision was made by the Secret Service, which estimated that ending the tours for roughly 11,000 people a week would save $74,000 in weekly overtime costs. That adds up to about $2 million in savings through the end of the fiscal year in September, it said.
Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan said another 37 officers are needed to secure the White House grounds during public tours. The agency is looking for ways to trim a mandatory $84 million from its budget without resorting to layoffs, he said.
“The White House has a unique place as both the seat of government, the residence of the leader of the country, but also a museum,” deputy White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Friday. “And it is a shame that, because of the sequester, those tours will no longer take place.”
But 1.6 miles to the east, skeptical Capitol Hill Republicans were having none of it. They accused the president of staging a political stunt aimed at pressuring the GOP into supporting his plan to offset the cuts by closing tax loopholes.
White House tickets are distributed through congressional offices, meaning it has been up to lawmakers to inform disappointed ticket-holders that their tours were canceled. But in doing so, many Republicans — and some Democrats — are reminding constituents that the legislative branch remains open.
“While I'm disappointed the White House has chosen to comply with sequestration by cutting public tours, I'm pleased to assure you that public tours of the United States Capitol will continue,” House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) wrote in a letter to his home district, saying his chamber had found cuts in other areas to keep the building open.
Outside the Beltway, tourists were less interested in the political point-scoring than in the last-
minute changes to their Washington itineraries.
Lisa Cambridge, 58, who is coming to the city for a speechwriting conference in two weeks, secured four White House tickets through Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.). She texted the good news to her daughter, Greta Gromovich, a State Department spokeswoman in the District. Gromovich texted back telling her to turn on MSNBC, where news of the tour cancellations was in heavy rotation.
Cambridge reacted with what she described as a “snarky” post on Facebook wondering whether Obama would be willing to “trim the fat” from his own pastimes.
“I think it's a public-relations ploy, and I think it will backfire,” she said in an interview. “It's really sad because right now the people who are going to be affected the most are children and students coming to Washington during spring break.”
One example is the sixth-grade class at St. Paul's Lutheran School in Waverly, Iowa. They had planned for months to get White House tickets for their trip to Washington next week, only to learn on the same day they got tickets that the tour had been canceled.
“The White House is our house! Please let us visit!” the students pleaded in a brief Facebook video, which was featured on ABC's “World News Tonight” to dramatize the human costs of the political gridlock that has gripped Washington.
“There were a lot of groans, and then a lot of questions about why can't they get it worked out,” said Karen Thalacker, whose son Malcolm Newell, 12, had his picture taken with Obama when he was campaigning in Iowa in 2007.
“They're getting a lesson in advocacy,” Thalacker said of the students' Internet activism, “and about how their government works.”
Conservatives piled on in an effort to embarrass the president. Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.), asked whether celebrities such as Jay-Z and Beyoncé who supported Obama's re-election campaign would still be allowed to tour the White House even though the public cannot. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) introduced an amendment to a spending bill that would ban Obama from traveling on the public dime to play golf until the tours are reinstated.
On Fox News, commentator Eric Bolling offered to pony up $74,000 of his own money to keep the tours going.
“If I can keep the White House doors open, I'll pick up the tab,” Bolling said, after pointing out that Obama had recently gone golfing on a “boys' weekend” in Florida and vacationed with his family last December in Hawaii.
Earnest, the White House spokesman, responded by accusing Republicans of “cheering this as a big victory” and saying that the president remains focused on the 750,000 people that the Congressional Budget Office estimates could lose their jobs because of the sequester.
The feud provides little solace to those whose White House tickets are now worthless. In the video by the St. Paul's class, Newell holds the framed picture of himself and Obama, who had signed it: “To Malcolm, dream big dreams!”
For the time being, at least, the 12-year-old's hopes of visiting the White House will have to be a dream deferred.
Emily Heil contributed to this report.