The Defense Department may be keeping just one aircraft carrier in the strategically important Persian Gulf because of budget cuts, but the Pentagon is keeping its doors open for public tours, unlike the White House.
The White House halted its popular tours because of the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration that took effect March 1.
The closure has stirred a wave of protests among politicians and commentators who say that the cost of conducting tours is small and that it is part of an Obama administration tactic to win the PR battle over the federal budget.
But across the Potomac River, the Pentagon has seen no need to stop hosting public tours, even though it must cut $46 billion from its budget by Sept. 30 and as much as $500 billion from its 10-year spending plan under sequestration.
Sightseers visiting the Pentagon’s vast corridors of power are a common occurrence in the world’s largest office building. More than 100,000 tourists visit each year, guided by enlisted personnel in dress uniform who tick off the building’s historic bric-a-brac in clipped, loud voices.
“It is twice the size of the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, and has three times the floor space of the Empire State Building in New York,” says the website pentagontours.osd.mil. “The National Capitol could fit into any one of the five wedge-shaped sections. There are very few people throughout the United States who do not have some knowledge of the Pentagon.”
The site has 16 parking lots, 131 stairways, 4,200 clocks, 691 water fountains and 284 restrooms.
“I don’t want to sound like I’m slamming the White House and I don’t know their situation at all. I don’t think there is any money to be saved here,” a Pentagon spokesman said of the tours. “These are pretty much ‘sunk costs’ for the department.
“It is the young military personnel assigned to honor guards. There is a website where they request to go on a tour and they get approval. And then they come and go through the security process like any other person goes through coming into the building. It’s not as if we can reduce our security procedures in any measurable way that would reduce the cost,” he said.
Meanwhile, President Obama, in an interview Tuesday with ABC News, blamed the Secret Service for the March 9 cancellation of White House tours.
Earlier this month, White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters: “The fact is the Secret Service, like other agencies of government, is affected by the sequester. 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.”