INTERIOR:

House sequestration hearing no walk in the park for NPS chief

National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis received harsh, bipartisan criticism today on his agency's refusal to provide Congress with information on its sequestration planning.

"For reasons we cannot understand, you have repeatedly thwarted our oversight," said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who heads the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. "This is an unacceptable pattern of behavior."

Jarvis faced the panel today for the latest installment in a series of hearings on how agencies are handling the across-the-board cuts that went into effect last month. The heads of the Smithsonian Institution and the National Archives and Records Administration also testified.

But lawmakers directed most of their questions at Jarvis, whose agency is absorbing $153.4 million in cuts through a hiring freeze, reduced park hours and the elimination of such administrative expenses as travel, supplies and contracted services.

Issa repeatedly criticized Jarvis for not responding to the panel's request for documents related to sequestration planning -- and took the unusual step of interrupting opening statements to ask Jarvis to answer questions on the status of the request.

In particular, Issa pointed to the existence of 400 questionnaires that individual parks sent to the Park Service with ideas on how to cut back on expenses. A "whistle-blower" has told the committee that a few parks indicated sequestration wouldn't affect services at all, he said.

Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the committee's top Democrat, emphasized that he "trusted" Jarvis and other public officials -- but he also said he "certainly agreed" with Issa's concern over the withheld documents.

Issa's request was reasonable and the agency's failure to respond was "very serious," Cummings said.

"We gotta move forward, Mr. Jarvis, and I think it's so important that we maintain the trust that I talked about a little bit earlier," Cummings said. "Whenever there's a lack of trust, relationships fail. I don't care what kind of relationship it is."

Jarvis placed most of the blame on the bureaucracy of the Interior Department. The Park Service received the March 27 request on April 8, after which more than a dozen employees ferreted out thousands of documents. Those documents, he said, were then sent to the Interior Department for review.

"The general counsel and solicitor's office do not work for the National Park Service. They work for the Department of Interior. They require their review of documents before they are sent. I have no control over that whatsoever," Jarvis said.

Indeed, Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) piped in with his experience with what he called a "very frustrating" process at Interior.

"This is a pattern that I see very, very prevalent in Department of Interior," he said.

By the end of the hearing, Issa's staff had contacted Interior, which had agreed to expedite the Park Service documents.

But Republicans had much more harsh questioning in store for Jarvis.

At one point, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Jarvis spoke over each other and seemed close to a shouting match. Jordan first accused Jarvis of not preparing for sequestration, then accused him of not obeying a White House memo last year that told agencies to not cut spending in preparation.

'Quite frankly, Mr. Jarvis'

Several Republican lawmakers -- including Issa -- also accused Jarvis of exaggerating the effects of sequestration in the months before it went into effect. Jarvis had publicly said the budget cuts would mean unplowed roads, undone maintenance and closed areas within parks.

Issa argued that the Park Service has 5 percent more money today in its operating budget than it had when President Obama took office -- and fewer visitors.

"In 2008, quite frankly, Mr. Jarvis, the roads were plowed, the trash was taken out and most of the time, there was toilet paper," Issa said.

But Jarvis maintained that his predications were accurate. With sequestration cuts, parks will have to do with 900 vacancies, meaning fewer people to clean, maintain and secure parks. The U.S. Park Police will also implement as many as 14 furlough days for each of its employees.

Jarvis also argued that the Park Service's budget has actually declined in the past few years. When pressed on increases, he said his agency received more money for fire management because of a growing responsibility. And that money, he said, can't be used for other operating costs such as cutting the grass and cleaning restrooms.

But the Park Service may be asking Congress for authority to move around more of its funds to better handle sequestration cuts; right now, most of the budget is appropriated to each individual park, meaning the agency has little flexibility. Jarvis said his agency has told the White House Office of Management and Budget that it would like such authority.

Jarvis also brought up NPS's desire to have more flexibility with the $160 million it collects in park fees each year. Currently, officials are not able to use the fees to cover the sequestration cuts.

And if sequestration continues beyond this year, Jarvis said his agency may ask for the authority to buy out employees -- a grim indication of the future for the agency's workforce.