Visitors to the nation’s capital looking for a White House public tour are out of luck starting this weekend, courtesy of what the Secret Service says is its own decision to deal with the sequester cuts.
But while the agency said it needed to pull officers off the tours for more pressing assignments, the budget ax didn’t swing early or deep enough to curtail a host of recent Secret Service-chaperoned trips like President Obama’s much-discussed Florida golf outing with Tiger Woods, first lady Michelle Obama’s high-profile multi-city media appearances, or even daughter Malia Obama’s New York dinner outing with a group of teenage friends.
Obama’s pricey golf outings have been a particular target for Republicans who see them as examples of what they say are the administration’s rather selective concerns with running up the tab of Secret Service resources. On March 5, Texas Rep. Louis Gohmert filed an amendment to a House resolution that would prohibit federal funds from being spent on Obama’s golf trips until public tours of the White House resumed.
Gohmert referenced press reports pegging the cost of a recent Florida golf outing Obama took with Tiger Woods at $1 million. He also cited press reports saying 341 federal workers could have been spared furloughs if Obama had stayed home.
“The president’s travel expenses alone, for the golfing outing with Tiger Woods, would pay for a year of White House visits,” Fox News contributor Charles Krauthammer said Thursday. “So I suggest that perhaps he curtail the travel.”
The price tag and draw on Secret Service resources involving promotional campaigns like Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative is less clear.
The Secret Service does not usually reveal how many agents and other resources are assigned to protective missions so it’s not known just how much it cost taxpayers to ferry the first lady to events like her dance routine on Jimmy Fallon’s show — the highlight of a Feb. 22 media blitz in New York — or her Feb. 27-28 visit to Mississippi, Missouri and her hometown of Chicago.
Those trips would all have involved Secret Service details traveling with the first lady, as well as advance work by teams of agents on location.
When asked by FoxNews.com if the first lady’s office or schedule would be affected by the sequester, the White House issued a 100-word statement that made no mention of any specific cuts that might affect Michelle Obama’s activities — while making a generic reference to cuts affecting the “Executive Office of the President,” which houses the first lady’s office.
Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest, asked how the White House was cutting back, on Friday said there would be furloughs and pay cuts.
On the decision to close the tours, Press Secretary Jay Carney a day earlier said “the President and the first lady have throughout the time that they’ve been here made extraordinary efforts to make this the people’s house, and it is extremely unfortunate that we have a situation like the sequester that compels the kinds of tradeoffs and decisions that this represents.”
It’s also not clear what Secret Service resources were dedicated to the New York visit by 14-year-old Malia Obama, who was spotted dining with a group of friends at the New York restaurant Buddakan less than 24 hours after President Obama signed off on the sequester. According to media reports, the group was chaperoned by four parents and five security guards who dined at the table directly next to them. There were also Secret Service agents in the restaurant, according to reports that said they stayed behind the group.
How much overtime these types of assignments cost the Secret Service may be an area of concern. Donovan told FoxNews.com that overtime costs factored into the decision to shut down the White House tours. By taking the 30 officers involved in the tours and assigning them to high-priority security posts, officers normally on those duties can log fewer hours — in turn saving the Secret Service money.
“It reduces overtime costs overall for us,” Donovan said.
The tours will not be rescheduled and will stay frozen until further notice.
That’s bad news for groups like the sixth graders at St. Paul’s Lutheran School in Iowa, who had been planning to take the White House tour on March 16. Fourteen students from that group and their teacher on Thursday took their frustrations to Facebook. In a web video, they held up handmade posters and chanted, “The White House is our house.”
Some Republicans in Congress expressed their displeasure with the cuts more forcefully. “Canceling all self-guided White House tours is the latest shameless political stunt by the president, who is twisting basic government efficiency into an extreme consequence,” Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., said in a statement March 5.