Busting Some Myths About the Shutdown
October 7, 2013
As of this writing, the US federal government is in a state of shutdown, unable to operate without a budget. Both sides of the impasse, Democrat and Republican, are hammering each other in the press and social media, accusing the other of creating and prolonging the crisis. With an issue as heated as this, it's natural for myths and false stories to spring up and be held aloft as examples of the damage being done. Without turning this into a political harangue against one side or the other, I want to take a look at some of the common accusations and myths that are being passed around.
I'm going to attempt to make this as non-partisan as possible, so you won't find me attacking or defending either side, only trying to get to the bottom of what's real and what's political grist. I'm also not going to try getting to the root causes of the shutdown, as that's covered quite well by other news outlets. What I do want to examine are the minor myths and memes floating around social media, such as:
President Obama's personal golf course is still open while soldiers starve: This a mix of true and false, with a little nuance required.
The origin of the claim seems to be a Bloomberg article from October 2, with the inflammatory headline "Troops Forage for Food While Golfers Play On in Shutdown." It highlights the seeming inconsistencies in what's closed and what's open during the shutdown, and that while military commissaries are locked, the links at Andrews Air Force Base are open. The piece is not about the President's golf habit, and doesn't even mention him.
While the President does play a fair amount of golf (whether or not it's too much is a matter of opinion) he does not have a "personal golf course." The course in question, at Andrews, is open, but a base official explained that it's funded by user fees, as opposed to military facilities, which are funded by the government.
National monuments had never been closed, until Obama did it: On the first day of the shutdown, an ugly scene unfolded at the World War II Memorial, as veterans who had come out from Mississippi were denied access by barricades put up by park rangers. The event was quickly politicized, with Conservatives accusing the Obama administration of shutting out the public in order to punish Republicans, and saying that closing off open-air public spaces had never happened in any previous shutdown.
The first accusation is purely political, but the second is false. Washington parks and memorials must, by law, close during a shutdown. And as the National Park Service has to furlough the majority of its workers, there isn't enough staff to ensure the safety and security of park visitors — hence the barricades. They were closed during both the Clinton era shutdowns of 1995 and 1996, and the brief shutdown in October 1990, during the presidency of George H.W. Bush. Whether or not the parks were accessible is another story. It appears from pictures taken at the time that some were, but it's impossible to know if they all were. However, they were all closed.
Incidentally, the WWII veterans were able to get into the Memorial, as their visit was deemed a free speech issue, and the National Park Service let them in. And it's true that the WWII memorial didn't close during any previous shutdown - because it opened in 2004.
Obama closed the ocean: Some of the land under the auspices of the National Park Service is actually water, including Florida Bay, which is almost entirely part of Everglades National Park. As such, the Bay is closed and access restricted until the shutdown ends. According to a Breitbart.com article from October 5, this closure is part of the Obama administration's "punishment" of the American people — rhetorically asking "How, pray tell, do you "close" 1,100 square miles of ocean?"
The closure of Everglades National Park should surprise nobody, and in no way signifies that "the ocean" is "closed" to the general public. Only the parts of it that correspond with national parks. Florida Bay in particular is known for its strong currents and treacherous passes — necessitating the availability of rescue personnel, who are currently on furlough.
The shutdown is hurting science: This is indisputably true. The shutdown has stopped government agencies devoted to scientific and medical research dead in their tracks. The damage is collected on a post from livescience.com, and it's infuriating. The National Science Foundation has virtually ceased operating, save emergency personnel. The National Institutes of Health can no longer accept new patients needing last-ditch clinical trials, and will need to destroy research materials that can't be maintained, including stem-cell lines and research animals. The Centers for Disease Control won't be able to monitor or respond to flu outbreaks. The Environmental Protection Agency has to furlough virtually its whole staff. The National Climate Data Center is closed. Food inspections will cease, imperiling the safety of anyone who eats anything not grown in the US. And thousands of scientists across agencies from NASA to NOAA are sitting at home, waiting to go back to work analyzing data, developing treatments and safeguarding our environment. Even Mars is feeling the pinch, with Curiosity's Twitter feed closed, a small but meaningful gesture that cuts all of us off from this amazing accomplishment.
I don't have to pay my taxes if the government is shut down: Yes, you do. Audits and refunds will cease, but the IRS will gladly take your money if you filed for an extension on your 2012 taxes.
The Senate passed a "National Chess Week" bill in the midst of the shutdown: While this sounds infuriating, the resolution recognizing National Chess Week (S.Res. 266) was just one of several minor resolutions passed by the Senate as part of their normal business. They also passed two transportation bills on the first Friday of the shutdown.
Obama ordered the arrest of Catholic priests attempting to hold Mass on military bases: Snopes has a good entry dealing with this bit of nonsense, but in short, it's a mix of true and false information. Because of an arcane 1870 law called the Antideficiency Act, the federal government can't incur any financial obligations for which money hasn't been appropriated. This has led to a wide range of confusion about what federal employees are and aren't allowed to do during the shutdown. This includes Catholic priests working as contract employees of the US military. Because they aren't active duty, and therefore exempt from the Antideficiency Act, they can't hold services during the shutdown, because this is considered work. This does NOT mean, however, that they've been threatened with imprisonment by the Obama administration, as some conservatives have alleged. The Act does include provisions to punish violators, but the administration has elected not to enforce them.
Edited 10/8/13 to add:
Obama shut down the Amber Alert system: This is a false claim that started circulating when a Department of Justice website responsible for disseminating Amber Alert bulletins, amberalert.gov, went offline due to the government shutdown. Outcries immediately went around proclaiming "Obama closed Amber Alert but kept __________ (usually named as the website for Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" youth fitness program) up."
However, Amber Alerts themselves have nothing to do with the federal government, other than being available on federal websites, and there's no reason they would be affected at all by the shutdown. The alerts are issued at the local level and compiled by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a nonprofit organization established in 1984. The President has absolutely no power to "end" Amber Alerts. In response to the misinformation, the DOJ put amberalert.gov back online a few days after it went down.
As a side note, letsmove.gov is still online, but doesn't appear to have been updated since the shutdown began.
Even with the shutdown, Obama is still going on his "Asian vacation": President Obama had planned on making a trip to Asia in early October, to attend economic summits and advance US trade interests. The trip was never a "vacation" as some conservatives have claimed, but the same economic outreach that presidents have done for centuries. This was actually the third attempt the president has made to visit Asia, with the first two trips cancelled because of domestic circumstances. And just like its predecessors, this trip was cancelled as well, just a few days into the shutdown. Secretary of State John Kerry will attend these meetings in place of President Obama.
As the shutdown drags on, expect more myths and accusations to crop up on all sides of every issue. I'd advise you be skeptical of all of them until you can research what they're really about.
@Skeptoid Media, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit