WASHINGTON – Budget cuts from Congress will soon reduce the number of free exhibitions on view each day at the Smithsonian Institution and will force unpaid leave for U.S. Park Police officers who guard the nation's monuments in Washington, New York City and elsewhere, agency officials told Congress on Tuesday.
The House Government Oversight and Reform committee met for about three hours to hear the impact of across-the-board budget cuts on the nation's treasures at the Smithsonian, National Archives and National Park Service.
Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough testified that the museum complex had made administrative cuts but must now reduce its security contract for gallery attendants because of the budget cuts. As a result, the Smithsonian can't keep all galleries open at once and will begin rolling gallery closures after May 1.
Facing a $41 million reduction in its budget, the Smithsonian will likely postpone or cancel some exhibits for 2014 and 2015, Clough said. One example is an initiative exploring the origins of democracy at the National Museum of American History. The Smithsonian also is cutting some education programs, including an outreach publication for teachers with digital lesson plans that serves 80,000 schools.
"There is no question sequester will have an impact on our ability to serve the American people," Clough said. "We will face hard decisions."
The most popular exhibits will not be closed, though, and families and school groups should not cancel their plans to visit the Smithsonian, said spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas. Still, visitors may find signs that read "third floor galleries are closed to the public" for a day.
Separately, the National Archives saw a $20 million cut and already has reduced its operating hours at sites in Washington and suburban Maryland.
Meanwhile, the police force that guards the monuments and memorials on the National Mall, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island in New York City and sites in San Francisco is being forced to furlough its 767 officers. They will have to take off up to 14 days unpaid from their jobs due to the budget cuts.
National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis told the congressional panel that the agency had to make $153 million in cuts this year across 400 parks. Salary cuts were avoided in most areas, though about 900 positions have been left unfilled.
The U.S. Park Police budget, however, is primarily devoted to salaries. So furloughs became necessary to achieve the savings Congress mandated, Jarvis said.
"It was a very, very difficult law to implement halfway through the year," Jarvis said. "We do not want to impact the public."
Safety and security will remain the agency's top priority, Jarvis said. Some lawmakers questioned the wisdom of furloughing police officers around prominent memorials and sites after the bombing attack at the Boston Marathon. Jarvis said he needs Congress to give him authority to transfer expenses between park service accounts, rather than mandating cuts in each unit of the agency, in order to avoid such furloughs.
California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, who called the hearing, expressed annoyance with Jarvis for speaking publicly about the negative impact of budget cuts, calling such statements "political." Jarvis has said previously that he is worried the cuts will mean bathrooms won't be cleaned and trash won't be picked up enough in parks.
Issa also said Jarvis failed to respond quickly to his request for documents and information on the park service budget.
"Americans need to know their government can save money," Issa said. "The fundamental question is: Can we do better with less?"
On the National Mall, Jarvis said the memorials would remain open 24 hours a day. But officials may cut back staffing at ranger stations after 10 p.m. Currently rangers are on duty until about 11:30 p.m. to interact with visitors who come to see the memorials at night.
Some lawmakers said the park service should have started planning sooner for Congress' budget cuts to avoid reductions in service.
If the budget cuts continue into the next fiscal year, Jarvis said he would need authority from Congress to offer buyouts to reduce the workforce.
Maryland Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings said Congress needs to know how the budget cuts are affecting the public.
"I will say this over and over again: Cuts have consequences — duh," Cummings told the three agency heads. "I'm not starting with the position that you're trying to screw the public."