White House tours stop running, families disappointed

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by Becky Mortensen

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Elouise Wafer's kids thought they had arranged the perfect gift for their mother's 70th birthday.

A former history teacher, Wafer had always wanted to stroll through the White House, a building she had taught about in school for decades.

Sylvia Atkins, her daughter, arranged for a tour through a member of Congress, then she and Wafer made the journey together from Dallas. But the plane ride had a dash of disappointment.

A couple days beforehand, Wafer saw on the news that the White House would be canceling public tours beginning Saturday -- the same day as her scheduled slot.

"This was my golden opportunity," Wafer said. "I really wanted to see some of the things that I had studied in school and taught about in school. I wanted to see it in real life."

Wafer was one of many tourists whose White House plans were scrubbed when the White House decided this week to cut the tours through September 30, the remainder of the fiscal year.

The move came days after Washington failed to come up with a plan to avert $85 billion in automatic spending cuts, known as sequestration. Federal agencies across the board are making changes to their budgets.

Ryan Dosier, another visitor whose tour luck ran out, was skeptical of whether the walk-throughs deserved to be on the chopping block.

"I just, I don't know how much this is really saving," he said. "I can't imagine that me and two other people is a big expense for them."

The U.S. Secret Service told CNN Thursday that the plan will help the agency save $74,000 per week -- or $2 million in the next seven months. That's how much it costs to pay 37 uniformed officers $50 an hour for 40 hours a week to secure the tour's route through the East Wing.

But that's just a fraction of the $84 million the Secret Service needs to cut from its $1.6 billion budget, according to the Office of Management and Budget. The officers normally assigned to the tours will be reassigned to other duties at the White House.

"The Secret Service, like other agencies of government is affected by the sequester," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said during his Thursday press briefing. "And the Secret Service presented options that ranged from canceling tours to potential furloughs and cuts in overtime. And in order to allow the Secret Service to best fulfill its core mission, the White House made the decision that we would unfortunately have to temporarily suspend these tours."

Some Republicans were quick to blast the Obama administration for nixing the tours, arguing it was a political move designed to draw up more negative public reaction over the cuts and pin all on the blame on the GOP.

"This is nonsense," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Friday on CNN's "The Situation Room." "This is punishing the American people."

Gingrich called on President Obama to end his golf outings and use the money saved to refund the tours.

"The president will use up more Secret Service time guarding him while he golfs than it would take to keep the White House tours open all year," he argued.

He wasn't the only one. Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas submitted an amendment to a funding measure in the House this week that would require the president to stop golfing until the White House resumed the tours.

A White House spokesman said Tuesday that this was just the first consequence to the forced spending cuts that began taking effect March 1. And White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Friday that more White House employees will face pay cuts and furloughs.

"We're also faced with making some tough decisions when it comes to ongoing projects," he said during the daily press briefing. "But we're also a pretty personnel heavy agency."

The self-guided tours are typically arranged through a member of Congress. Natalie Cooper had obtained a ticket through the office of a senator from North Carolina for her son's 8th birthday.

Standing outside the White House Saturday, shortly before noon, Cooper told the birthday boy, Aaron, that they would no longer be getting a tour.

"I was pretty upset about it," she told CNN. "He had his own bucket list and on that bucket list was D.C. and the White House, so it was a little bit upsetting."

Aaron had already told his class he was going to the White House and added that he was "sad, very sad." But, he said, they had plans to see more monuments and museums in town.

Other visitors -- who didn't have tour plans -- felt less upset about the cancelation. As one couple from Canada said, "Cuts are cuts."

The White House Visitors Center, however, will remain open seven days a week. Located just southeast of the White House, the center -- through the National Park Service -- offers guided tours around the White House area for free every hour. The center also shows a 25-minute video of the different rooms in the White House.

While Wafer won't get her own tour of the White House for her 70th birthday, she said she's not letting the disappointment ruin her Washington vacation. Among other stops, Wafer took a tour of the U.S. Capitol.

But, just like any good teacher, she was more concerned about the students.

"Kids are out for spring break, and they don't get a chance to come (here) all the time," she said. "This is a good time for them to visit the White House."