The Architect of the Capitol received both good news and bad news this week.
On Monday afternoon it learned that, under the House’s continuing resolution to fund the government through September, the agency would finally be allowed to proceed with the second phase of restoring the Capitol Dome. That was the good news.
Sen. John Hoeven, one of Capitol Hill’s biggest champions for giving the AOC the $61 million necessary to save the historic structure from further and irrevocable deterioration, called the development a victory.
“All along ... we’ve been working to get it in either the CR or whatever we ended up passing, so we can get it going,” the North Dakota Republican said. “It’s very important that we get it going now so that we can get it done before the next inaugural.”
And then on Tuesday: the bad news.
The money wouldn’t be an “add-on” but rather a transfer from the AOC’s existing account to fund capital projects, which are already somewhat anemic under the strain of past budget cuts and are poised to be cut further under the sequester.
“There will be other projects in our budget that won’t be able to get done,” said Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers, testifying Tuesday morning before the House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee.
Postponing some initiatives to prioritize others and making difficult choices about where scarce resources would best be spent has become par for the course for the AOC. At Tuesday’s hearing aimed at explaining his agency’s fiscal 2014 budget request and preparations for the sequester, Ayers cited $171.9 million in necessary maintenance projects that would have to be deferred indefinitely. “This is not without serious risks,” he cautioned.
The AOC’s challenge, Ayers continued, is to maintain the original historic structures and features of the Capitol campus as they continue to age and deteriorate, while also ensuring that these structures do not pose safety risks to the people who come to the Capitol each day.
According to the prepared statement that Ayers submitted to the subcommittee Tuesday, the Capitol itself, currently in “good” condition on the AOC’s Facility Condition Index, will degrade to a “poor” condition in fiscal 2017 if sufficient funding is not allocated for repairs.
The James Madison Memorial Building of the Library of Congress, currently in “fair” condition, will also receive a “poor” rating in 2017 if money is not made available. The Cannon House Office Building is in the same situation, though it’s still on track for a massive renovation between 2016 and 2022 that will require staggered relocations for lawmakers and staff during that time.
In addition to posing safety risks and putting strain on aging iconic buildings, Ayers emphasized that the longer certain projects are postponed, the more expensive they will become, citing the projected decline of various buildings along the Facility Condition Index.
“While several facilities are still trending beyond a ‘good’ condition, we are finding recently assessed facilities rated ‘fair’ or ‘poor’ are getting worse,” Ayers said. “These system renewal projects become more costly the longer they are deferred, and as such, facility conditions will continue to deteriorate.”
The need to fund the second phase of Capitol Dome restoration before that project became too exorbitantly expensive was not lost on the House appropriators who included the authorization in the continuing resolution. That funding measure is set to be considered on the floor this week.
House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Rodney Alexander, R-La., and ranking member Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., also suggested Tuesday that they are sensitive generally to the AOC’s narrative about the importance of being proactive in preserving the integrity of the Capitol grounds and structures.
Even in the face of angry constituents at town hall meetings back in members’ districts, Alexander said, “We can’t argue that we’re saving money if it’s going to cost more money later on.”
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.