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Why White House tours, egg hunts became the public face of sequestration

Officials at Hanford Nuclear Reservation notified 237 employees Monday they will be laid off next week. An air traffic controller at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport who just won an award for saving a pilot's life learned this week she will be furloughed.

But when it comes to what now defines the current budget standoff between President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans, it's all about White House tours and the Easter Bunny.

Why have two tourist rituals — visiting the First Family's residence and the annual Easter Egg Roll — garnered much of the publicity even as the mandatory across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration are chipping away at basic government services? And how has a process that was supposed to put Republicans on the defense allowed them to go on the attack?

Two factors — symbolism and location — account for the Obama administration's current predicament.

The White House occupies an outsized position of importance in the American psyche, and many citizens are emotionally attached to its routine rituals. So the scaling back of activities there - or in the case of the 135th Easter Egg Roll, just the prospect of cancellation - alarmed people.

"This is a great country — no one likes to think we have to cancel events at the president's house because we can't afford them," said Howard Wolfson, New York's deputy mayor for government affairs and communications and a longtime Democratic strategist.

While only a fraction of the public might visit the White House in a given year, everyone can identify with the school trips and families who have learned in the past couple of weeks that they won't be allowed entry.

Allan Lichtman, a professor of history at American University, said cancelling such symbolic events make people "feel more anxious about the future" because they "lose a sense of stability and order."

"The American boycott of the 1980 Olympics, for example, had a similar effect even though it was not nearly as important as the invasion of Afghanistan that brought it about," Lichtman wrote in an email.

But Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., who chairs the House Administration Committee, said the administration should have anticipated people would balk at the idea of "closing, really, the people's house."

"I think the president badly miscalculated, and what they did blew up in their face," she said.

Republicans have moved aggressively to capitalize on the symbolic import of things like the cancellation of White House tour.

While the impacts of sequestration are taking place in communities across the country, the national press is based in Washington, which makes a White House-specific story much easier to cover.

White House spokesman Jay Carney expressed his frustration with journalists' incessant inquiries about the decision to cancel the tour during his March 14 briefing:

"We've been dealing with questions about this every day, quite a few of them. And as the President has said, and I and others have said, this is a very unfortunate circumstance that is a result of the sequester. And it was an unhappy choice that had to be made," he said, adding moments later. "And I think it's always important to remember, of course, that when we talk about that unfortunate outcome or result of the sequester, that we recognize that the impacts of the sequester go beyond whether or not people are going to be able to have tours of the White House. And in some ways you might say some of the impacts are even more unfortunate - families who lose slots in Head Start, or families who experience layoffs or furloughs around the country."

At the Hanford Site in Washington State, for example, the sequester has forced the Energy Department to lay off nearly 250 employees and furlough 2,600 more. It will deal a serious blow to the nation's largest Superfund cleanup effort, which is addressing the impact of 40 years of plutonium production.

"It's a hard blow to the workforce because these are the people who actually do the work in the field," Energy Department spokesman Cameron Hardy said of the layoffs, adding the cuts are so deep because the agency cannot reduce its surveillance and maintenance budget. "There's no such thing as cutting surveillance and maintenance with a nuclear facility."

Miller's district in southeast Michigan has felt the impact of sequestration as well. The suspension of the military's Tuition Assistance Program has cost 4,000 Central Michigan University students their aid, at least temporarily, and the Federal Aviation Administration has announced it will close the control tower at Detroit's Coleman A. Young International Airport in April.

But Miller noted that Macomb County government employees have been taking furloughs for four years, so the idea of government cutbacks haven't fazed her constituents.

"In the 10 years I've been in Washington, this is the first time we've ever cut spending," she said. "It's not like there's some groundswell of sympathy for the federal government finally taking some cuts. And the decision to cancel White House tours is going over like a lead Zeppelin."

Why White House tours, egg hunts became the public face of sequestration 03/20/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 20, 2013 5:47pm]
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