From park toilets to courts, US shutdown jams up the works

The Capitol building in Washington, on Jan 2, 2019, the 12th day of the government shutdown.
The Capitol building in Washington, on Jan 2, 2019, the 12th day of the government shutdown.PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON/JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK, CALIFORNIA (REUTERS) - As Ralph Snake walked across Washington's National Mall on Wednesday (Jan 2), he stopped every few feet to pick up some of the litter that had accumulated on the once-tidy expanse of grass since a budget showdown partially closed the federal government nearly two weeks ago.

"I decided to clean up this one section, because that's what Americans will do," said Mr Snake, a 64-year-old member of the indigenous Ho-Chunk Nation in Wisconsin.

Mr Snake had come to the US capital to witness Ms Sharice Davids get sworn in as one of the first two women of native American descent to become members of Congress. "Just because this thing is shut down, our hearts aren't shut down," he added.

The partial shutdown, which has cut off many government services, entered its 12th day on Wednesday with no end in sight. It stems from an impasse between congressional Democrats, who take control of the House of Representatives on Thursday, and President Donald Trump, who is demanding US$5.6 billion (S$7.6 billion) in funding for a border wall.

National parks have closed campgrounds out of fear that toilets will overflow with human waste. Hundreds of thousands of federal employees are working without pay. The immigration court system, already suffocating under a massive backlog, is largely shuttered.

The prospects for an end to the showdown remained unclear, even as congressional leaders visited the White House on Wednesday.

In Washington, the 17 museums run by the Smithsonian as well as the National Zoo closed their doors on Wednesday after running out of emergency funding, leaving tourists frustrated with politicians of all stripes.

"It's stupid," said Ms Laura Vanbragt, a 20-year-old student from Grand Rapids, Michigan. "There should just be more communication between the two, more give on both sides."

Outside the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Mr Clint Woods and his family stood in line waiting for a guided tour with other visitors who were locked out of more popular venues.

"It's like two squabbling children," Mr Woods, 43, said of Mr Trump and Democratic leaders in Congress. "They both think they're right, and they're dug in."

California's Joshua Tree National Park, about 209km east of Los Angeles, is among many national parks across the country that have curtailed operations.

It closed some campgrounds on Wednesday because outdoor toilets, which cannot be emptied due to a lack of staffing, have reached capacity, creating a potential health hazard.


Mr Victor Jerez, 53, spent the day hiking in Joshua Tree with his brother, his sister and their families, though they were disappointed to find the visitor centre shut down.

"It would have been nice to have some trail maps and to get some recommendations from the staff," said Mr Jerez, who was visiting from Europe, where he splits his time between Barcelona and London.


Unlike in some previous government shutdowns, many national parks have remained open, though without staff to collect rubbish and service restrooms. Advocates have voiced alarm that an extended shutdown could cause environmental damage.

"We're very concerned about the reports we're seeing of human waste in inappropriate places," said Mr John Garder, senior director of budget and appropriations for the National Parks Conservation Association. "Trash is a serious concern for wildlife."

The impact of the shutdown has reached the nation's 62 immigration courts as well. Hundreds of judges are on furlough, and only cases of immigrants in detention are being heard.

The Trump administration has expanded the system, which is run by the US Department of Justice, aiming to cut down on the backlog of more than 800,000 cases, but the shutdown will complicate that effort, said Ms Ashley Tabaddor, the president of the national immigration judges' union.

"To reschedule these cases can take several years because the judges are all booked," she said.

A Justice Department spokesman said he could not respond to a request for comment because of the shutdown.

Meanwhile, some 800,000 government workers are either furloughed or working without pay until the shutdown ends.

Ms Shekina Givens, a 32-year-old Transportation Security Administration officer in Atlanta and president of the local chapter of a union that represents government employees, said she is avoiding using her credit cards and putting off some expenses.

"I'm the only person that's working in my household and paying all the bills," she said.