Fourteen years after Congress passed legislation to place a memorial for Dwight D. Eisenhower on the National Mall, the Eisenhower Memorial Commission is fighting to move its vision forward against a rising tide of opposition from Eisenhower family members, members of Congress and outside groups.
A turning point could come Tuesday, when the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation will hold a hearing to receive testimony from stakeholders on all sides of the issue.
The hearing also will explore the merits of a bill introduced last week by subcommittee Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, that would force the commission to select an alternative design for the monument, eliminate all congressional funding and sunset the organization entirely within three years of the measure’s enactment.
“The Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial will honor one of the greatest leaders in our nation’s history and serve as a lasting tribute to his legacy,” Bishop said in a statement regarding the former president and World War II hero. “It is important that we get this project right and presently, there are far too many outstanding concerns including the controversial design and rising costs.
“We need to reevaluate the current status of the project and find the best way forward towards building greater consensus.”
The Tuesday hearing comes almost a year to the day after the last hearing Bishop convened to probe the commission’s progress. The commission, established under the 1999 law, is a panel of lawmakers and industry experts tasked with using both public and private funding to solicit designs, select an architect, obtain approval for the winning concept and supervise construction.
At that time, members of the Eisenhower family were launching a fusillade of public attacks against the commission, arguing that the approved design envisioned by renowned architect Frank Gehry didn’t appropriately reflect the president’s legacy. They also suggested that the process by which Gehry was selected was flawed or even fixed.
At the time, Bishop said he would recommend eliminating funding for the commission until the family felt more comfortable with the design.
Efforts were made to assuage the Eisenhowers’ concerns, but family members and critics were unmoved by suggested adjustments to the concept’s scale, scope, materials and overarching theme.
Now, in March 2013, the continuing resolution to fund the government through the end of the fiscal year could include language authorizing the commission to continue business as usual.
However, Bishop’s bill has elicited a strong enough reaction on and off Capitol Hill that its preliminary consideration at Tuesday’s hearing could help determine what comes next for the Eisenhower Memorial Commission.
Opponents who want the commission to ditch the Gehry design entirely view the Bishop legislation as a victory for their cause.
“The people’s representatives are responding to the serious, substantive concerns we and many others have had about the project’s deconstructionist design, secretive process, exorbitant expense, and uncertain durability,” National Civic Art Society President Justin Shubow said in a statement.
On the other side of the issue, stakeholders took the news of Bishop’s new legislative push personally.
Rocco Siciliano, the chairman of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, said in a statement that he was “saddened by Congressman Bishop’s attempt to thwart the memorialization of one of America’s greatest Generals and Presidents” and that the bill “insults” the efforts of the past 14 years to make the monument a reality.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., a member of the commission, also expressed disappointment last week: “I don’t think you want to eviscerate 12 years and $30 million worth of planning,” he told CQ Roll Call.
“It has the support of quite a few Kansas governors and our entire delegation, and the commission has done a lot of work,” Roberts added. Eisenhower was raised in the Sunflower State.
And Robert Ivy, CEO of the American Institute of Architects, suggested Bishop’s proposal was tantamount to letting Congress “exercise governmental authority in a wholly arbitrary manner that negates the stated selection process.”
Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz. — the ranking member on Bishop’s National Resources subcommittee this year and last — in 2012 shared some of Ivy’s concerns, specifically that it might be inappropriate for Congress to “start legislating and directing to the commission.”
But last week, Grijalva said that apart from eliminating federal funding, Bishop’s bill was an appropriate course of action, one that would continue to empower the commission while giving it the push it a needed push.
“If I had to choose, I would ask them to accelerate [the process] without taking the authority away from them,” said Grijalva of the commissioners, rather than continuing to “hold [the project] up with no resolution in sight.”
Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, who was a member of the commission before his death, would have agreed at least with Bishop and Grijalva’s assessment that the monument needs to be built as soon as possible.
“Time is of the essence,” Inouye said in May 2012. “There is a national interest in making sure this monument is completed to remind the next generation of Americans what America has gone through and the great leaders we’ve had.”
One of Congress’ last remaining World War II veterans, Inouye died seven months later.
Visitors get their first look at the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, which opened to the public on Monday, Oct. 6, 2014. The new memorial is located off Independence Ave. SW between the Rayburn House Office Building and HHS. Buy photo here.