On Stimulus Packages, Lobbyists, and Congressfolk

The harsh conditions of Glacier National Park make maintenance of the Going-to-the-Sun Road a never-ending task, as this 2006 image, taken in the wake of a powerful November storm, shows. Aid to the National Park Service via the economic stimulus legislation could make a substantial dent in maintaining the National Park System. NPS photo.

If you've been paying any attention to how Congress is treating the National Park System in terms of the economic stimulus package, you'd have to agree there are a few interesting, and possibly even amusing, side stories.

The main show, if you will, is the difference between what the House would spend on the national parks and what the Senate is thinking of spending. The curious side shows involve, naturally, politics, as well as the use of some oddly placed adjectives. (Yet another aspect of this process -- the appropriateness of the stimulus package to begin with and the resulting consequences for the American taxpayer -- can be debated, but President Obama and Congress as a whole both seem set on this course.)

The stimulus package passed by the House last week, formally dubbed the "American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan," would provide around $2.25 billion for the National Park Service to apply to a wide range of infrastructure needs. The Senate, though, has been talking in the range of $800 million for the parks.

As this week progresses, hopefully we'll see some clarity on what might finally surface in the final legislation. Until that happens, we're left to ponder Rep. Darrell Issa's call for an investigation into how the House Appropriations Committee came up with that $2.25 billion figure, and, for those who believe the media long ago lost its unbiased approach to news coverage, the wording the Washington Times used in reporting on Congressman Issa's concerns.

Mr. Issa, a Republican from California's 49th District (which, incidentally, has no national park units within its borders), questioned the propriety of the parks' allotment after realizing that the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, David Obey, is the father of Craig Obey, the senior vice president for governmental affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association.

Perhaps Mr. Issa, who seems drawn to controversy like flies to honey, wouldn't have pointed to the father-son connection if he had done his homework first.

For starters, the folks at NPCA have pointed out that since Craig Obey joined their staff there’s been an in-house agreement that everyone at NPCA, not just Craig, would refrain from approaching Craig's father on behalf of the parks.

"We just don’t do it, so there’s no appearance of impropriety,” says Tom Martin, NPCA’s executive vice president.

Understanding that, one might assume that Craig Obey's lineage actually hinders NPCA's ability in advocating for the national parks. After all, in matters such as the economic stimulus, those who believe the national parks are in need of some congressional love would certainly hope, if not expect, the NPCA would be talking to the Appropriations Committee chair about the needs. That the advocacy group can't, well, that's certainly not to the parks' best interests, is it?

Beyond that firewall, though, is the little, apparently overlooked detail of how that $2.25 billion for the parks really did get inserted into the House bill. If Rep. Issa had asked Rep. Obey how he arrived at the number, he would have learned that Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Washington) had requested the funding. Mr. Dicks, as those who have been around Congress for any length of time know, cares more than a little bit about parks and has a long track record of fighting for them in Congress.

And then, of course, there's the little matter that back in Wisconsin, Rep. Obey is well-known for showing up in national park units and staying in touch with their staffs to see how they're doing. On occasion he's even been known to bring other members of the Appropriations Committee with him. In other words, his concern about the fate of the national parks is not newly found.

Now, as ranking member of the House's Oversight and Government Reform Committee, it's certainly appropriate for Mr. Issa to be concerned with how decisions are made. And he has a track record of questioning appropriations. But what's at least a little curious about Mr. Issa's concerns regarding the parks share of the stimulus package is that he didn't point to anything in the $2.25 billion appropriation that seemed inappropriate. Which might indicate that his comments were, as Shakespeare himself put it, "full of sound and fury signifying nothing."

Traveler has placed a call to the congressman's office seeking clarification of Mr. Issa's concerns, and is awaiting a return call.

Now, regarding adjectives, it seems a bit odd that in reporting on the dollar disparity between the House and Senate that the Washington Times would describe the House appropriation as "a staggering increase and almost three times the $802 million that the Senate Appropriations Committee set aside in its version of the $819 billion stimulus bill." (Emphasis added)

Flipping the coin, the paper could just as easily have written that the requested $2.25 billion "fell far shy of addressing the National Park Service's estimated $9 billion maintenance backlog," or that "while the House appropriation would make a substantial inroad in addressing the maintenance backlog, the Senate's figure would barely dent that backlog."

Or, the newspaper could simply have reported the two figures and let the readers decide if one was staggering and the other not.

Lost in all this tussle are the needs of the national parks and whether they properly fall within the guidelines and intentions of the recovery act. It's been no secret that the parks have serious maintenance needs that long have been overlooked. Indeed, David Barna, the Park Service's communications chief in Washington, points out that the agency has "over $8 billion in our backlog and half of that is roads that we can repair by 2010."

"The difficulty is spending funds by 2010 when typically the first couple of years for large projects like visitor centers is in the planning and doesn't cost much," notes Mr. Barna.

Even with that understood, the Park Service has a wide array of ready-to-go-projects -- worthy projects if you believe the National Park System is a key repository for America's culture, heritage, and scenic beauty. These are meaningful treasures and touchstones that should be maintained for today and tomorrow, not allowed to tarnish and collapse from neglect or indifference -- that could benefit from the stimulus package.

Here's a look at some of those needs, as compiled by NPCA with help from the National Park Service staff:

* $1 million to repair the failing sewage system at Cuyahoga Valley National Park

* $10 million for repairs at the historic Fort Jefferson at Dry Tortugas National Park

* $9 million for repairs to roads and parking lots at Acadia National Park

* $21.35 million for the ongoing rehabilitation of the Going-to-the-Sun Road at Glacier National Park.

* $11.2 million to rehab the Bonnie Claire Road (aka Route 11) in Death Valley National Park between mileposts 7 and 20. The current road isn't designed to handle the amount of traffic it receives.

* $15 million to build employee housing in Grand Canyon National Park. The Park Service wants to replace 10 trailers with eight, eight-plex multi-family housing units.

* $4.2 million to bring all of Great Smoky Mountains National Park's "comfort stations or restrooms" up to ADA requirements.

* $927,615 to repair and rehab Stirling's Quarters at Valley Forge National Historical Park. These quarters were used by Maj. Gen. Lord Stirling and Major James Monroe during the Continental Army's encampment at Valley Forge. Some of the funds also would go toward rehabbing the Maurice Stephens House.

That's just an inkling of what awaits attention in the National Park System. These are not pork-barrel projects. These are projects ready to go and which, if attended to, would do a measure of good for the infrastructure of the park system. But they should be seen as a beginning to the work, not an end.

Comments

Kudo's to the congress if they will stick to the already identified backlog (there is plenty of it there). I fear that what is happening is parks are writing new projects and moving quickly on other projects in their infancy because they see funding opportunities. Just because there is money available doesn't mean you can bypass the processes that ensure they are doing the right thing. Lets not throw things like environmental assessments, environmental impact studies, public scoping, cost assessments, government bids, scopes of work, specifications and good contracting practices (including quality assurance and quality controls) out the window. These processes take a lot of effort and manpower. If the Parks are to recieve this funding they will have to increase staffing drastically to do things right. The Park Service needs this stimulus, but they also need base funding to do the job. To throw money at the problem short term will create a careless spending spree that will injure the reputation of the service. The last thing we need are million dollar pith toilets.

Borrow and pave. Great strategy.

I have to agree strongly with Kurt's comment that the senior executives at NPCA should be talking directly to Appropriations Chairman Obey. Do they at least communicate with members of the committee? They must, although that in itself would seem to border on conflict as members often curry favor with the chairman in order to bring more pork to their districts. For serious appearance of conflict of interest we need to look to members of Congress who are perfectly happy with their spouses working as lobbyists, often bring in seven figure salaries. That said, the NPCA situation appears awkward, if not odd, but not unusual for the Washington merry-go-round.

On the point of NPS monies as stimulation, obviously, I'd love to see the current maintenance backlog eliminated and the NPS mission sustained by providing an unparalleled experience for visitors. Unfortunately, what many economists are telling us is that any stimulus must enter the banking and credit economy NOW. The U.S. economy can't wait until 2010, 2011 or later if we want to avoid the years of stagnation and struggling recovery experienced through infrastructure development during the Great Depression.

If we choose infrastructure over banking, then I certainly want to see the NPS maintenance backlog eliminated. Equally important and either way, as Frank C points out, taxpayers will pay a very heavy price for a very long, long time. Let's hope we do more than repaint the deck chairs on the Titanic.

This all begs this question: Other than being the Congressman's son, what qualifications did Craig Obey have to be hired as a senior vice-president of NPCA? And the NPCA's comment that no one talks to Obey on behalf of the parks? Yes, I believe that the son doesn't talk to his father about his job. (Sarcasm)

Hey Frank, why not? We're already into the Republic of China for over $850BB that they recently loaned us to keep our failing economy afloat (aka, so we could subsidize their economy via the continued purchase of low grade generic crap that our citizenry seems to love) and as there is no immediate hint of recovery, why not add a few more billions and then do what a multitude of nations have so successfully accomplished in the recent past.....just default baby! We've subsudized enough failed world economies over the past half century. It time we play the same game in reverse, since that's the only way we'll EVER see any of our investments returned. I see no shame in playing by everyone else's rules since they refuse to play by ours.