ONE of Washington’s most popular visitor attractions, the White House tour, became the latest victim of federal cuts yesterday when they were suspended until further notice.
The move, which US government officials say will save an estimated $74,000 (£49,500) a week, left many advance tickets unusable.
A group of pupils from St Paul’s Lutheran School in Iowa posted a message on Facebook after learning their planned visit was cancelled. It said: “The White House is our house. Please let us visit.”
Across-the-board spending cuts, known as “sequestration” have been imposed in many areas of official life since the Democrats and Republicans failed to reach agreement on federal spending cuts. Almost every government department, including aviation and the parks service, has been hit with cuts amounting to around 5 per cent of their total budget. Medicaid and welfare benefits are exempt.
Tours of the public parts of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC are popular with visitors and tourists. Tickets are bought many months in advance and the tours are often the highlight of many schoolchildren’s first trip to the nation’s capital.
Earlier this year, a video of the Obamas delighting a White House tour group with a surprise appearance became a hit on YouTube.
Tickets for the tours are often secured through members of Congress and are valid only for a specific day.
“It is extremely unfortunate that we have a situation like the sequester that compels the kinds of trade-offs and decisions that this represents,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney.
He said the Secret Service, which is involved in the tours, offered various options to deal with sequester-related cuts ranging from cancelling tours to furloughs and cuts in overtime. “And in order to allow the Secret Service to best fulfil its core missions, the White House made the decision that we would, unfortunately, have to temporarily suspend these tours.”
Another White House spokesman, asked whether private donations might put the tours back on track, said that step might be unfeasible given the technical requirements of the sequester.
The last time the White House closed its doors to school groups was after the 11 September, 2001, attacks. The tours resumed in February 2002, with a suspension in the spring of 2003 during the US-led invasion of Iraq.
Meanwhile, the House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner boasted that tours of the Capitol would continue. “Even though our budget’s been cut like everyone else’s, thanks to proper planning, we’re able to avoid furloughs amongst Capitol workers, and tours will remain available for all Americans,” Boehner said.
He called the White House decision “disappointing” and “silly,” the result of a failure to find savings in other parts of the budget.
The recorded White House message for those looking for tour information is as contrite as a recorded message can get: “Due to staffing reductions resulting from sequestration, we regret to inform you that White House tours will be cancelled effective Saturday, 9 March, 2013, until further notice.
“Unfortunately we will not be able to reschedule affected tours. We very much regret having to take this action, particularly during the popular spring touring season.”