The gross obsession with White House tours

March 13, 2013

Of late, Republicans have been pretty unimpressed by the sequester. It wasn't always so, of course. Back when it was first announced, House Speaker John Boehner called the cuts "devastating" and said they were never going to happen. During the election, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan criss-crossed the nation warning that the sequester would be, again, devastating and would cost hundreds of thousands of jobs.


(Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP)

But since then, Republicans have had a change of heart — or at least a change of negotiating strategy. The GOP's new line is that the sequester is imperfect, but spending cuts are spending cuts, and Republicans love spending cuts. Except one, it turns out.

There is one spending cut that Republicans hate so much that they are willing to dig into their own pockets to cover the cost. They can’t abide the idea that the American people, in a time of austerity, would be denied the essential government function of …White House tours. Yes, White House tours.

On Fox News's "The Five," Eric Bolling offered to come to the rescue of a worried nation:

I’ll make you a deal, Mr. President. Jay Carney, grab your pencil. Let these families take their White House tours next week and I’ll cover the added expenses. Word is it’ll cost around $74,000. If I can get the White House doors open, I will pick up the tab. Mr. Carney, you know this is an offer you can’t refuse. Give me a call.

Sean Hannity backed him up:

In the House, Representative Louie Gohmert tried to pass an amendment saying no more golf trips for President Obama until White House tours reopen. That’ll show him. And the fury has broken through. George Stephanopoulos, in his interview with Obama, actually used up two of his questions on the White House tours issue. Here was Obama's response:

You know, I have to say this was not a decision that went up to the White House. But what the Secret Service explained to us was that they’re gonna have to furlough some folks. What furloughs mean is that people lose a day of work and a day of pay.

And, you know, the question for them is, you know, how deeply do they have to furlough their staff and is it worth it to make sure that we’ve got White House tours that means that you got a whole bunch of families who are depending on a paycheck who suddenly are seeing a 5% or 10% reduction in their pay ... But I’m always amused when people on the one hand say, 'the sequester doesn’t mean anything and the administration’s exaggerating its effects'; and then whatever the specific effects are, they yell and scream and say, 'Why are you doing that?'

For the record, there were no questions that included the word "jobs" or "unemployment."

The White House tours came up again when Obama met with the House GOP:

Here’s what’s going on. The Secret Service is getting cut under the sequester. They took a look at the things they do and one of those things is they stand guard during White House tours so no one runs off and tries to attack the president. So rather than cutting one of the things they really need to do, they cut the White House tours.  Seems pretty reasonable.

The question is why Republicans in Congress and conservatives in the media have chosen this to get angry about. You can find the answer elsewhere on Fox News:

White House tours, which are self-guided, are typically scheduled through members of Congress. Visitors can request a tour through their representative up to six months in advance.

So, these kids come to town, they can't get the tour they scheduled through their member of Congress, and now they’re not so happy with their member of Congress and the sequester. That means that member of Congress now has a problem with some of their constituents — and with the kinds of constituents who are likely to contact their member of Congress when their kid goes to Washington.

That's what makes the outrage over White House tours a bit gross. White House tours don’t matter. They really don’t. But the people they upset are the people who are in touch with members of Congress, and so all of a sudden Republicans are running and rushing to do something about it.

But those folks are going to be fine without their White House tour. You know who may not be fine? The jobless, who are seeing their unemployment checks cut by almost 10 percent. The pregnant mothers and young children getting fed through the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, which the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates may serve as many as 775,000 fewer people due to the sequester. The 100,000 formerly homeless people that the Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates are in emergency shelters or other temporary housing arrangements and might be turned back onto the street.

No one on Fox is saying we’ll dig into our pockets until no unemployed person, or no recently homeless person, has to suffer. Louie Gohmert isn’t ending pay for Congress until the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women and Children is made whole. But White House tours? That's treated as an emergency.

Some of the scariest political science research I've ever read comes from Princeton's Marty Gilens, who found that the political system is very responsive to the rich and utterly uninterested in the poor:

If Americans at different income levels agree on a policy, they are equally likely to get what they want. But what about the other half of the time? What happens when preferences across income levels diverge?

When preferences diverge, the views of the affluent make a big difference, while support among the middle class and the poor has almost no relationship to policy outcomes. Policies favored by 20 percent of affluent Americans, for example, have about a one-in-five chance of being adopted, while policies favored by 80 percent of affluent Americans are adopted about half the time. In contrast, the support or opposition of the poor or the middle class has no impact on a policy’s prospects of being adopted.

There's been a lot made in D.C. about how the sequester hasn't really been a disaster, how most Americans aren't feeling it yet. Well, it all depends on who you ask. The folks losing unemployment checks don't tend to know their congressman. Their parents don't hold fundraisers. They don’t come to D.C., and before they come to D.C., they don't get a congressional staffer on the phone and build a relationship. They’re hurting, but not in a way that the political system actually notices.

The furor over the White House tours is an unusually vivid example of this grossly unequal responsiveness. There's been much less concern over the pain the sequester will cause than the political pain the sequester will cause, and much less attention to the pain that is happening outside Washington, DC. Defense contractors are both politically powerful and quite local, for instance – that’s why Republicans are trying so hard to give the Pentagon more flexibility and more money before the contracts start dropping. The people who go on White House tours are also highly visible inside the Beltway – that’s why there's so much the White House reopened.

There's bargaining power for Republicans in upholding the convenient fiction that we can make these cuts and no one will really hurt, because government spending is just wasteful and unnecessary. But the effort here isn't to make sure no one hurts. It's to make sure no one with the political capital to do something about it hurts. As such, the minor inconveniences of the politically powerful have become a national crisis, even as some of the politically powerless are losing not just a White House tour, but the very roof over their heads.

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Sarah Kliff | March 13, 2013