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Eisenhower Memorial Losing Support from Congress

Congress is using the power of the purse strings to put more pressure on the planners behind the Eisenhower Memorial, a project that is now nearly 15 years in the making.

The project received only $1 million of its $51 million request, meaning the Eisenhower Memorial Commission will have to stretch to cover operating costs for the professional staff at its K Street office suite. Appropriators have in the past set aside $2 million for that function.

The fiscal 2014 omnibus funding bill also effectively blocks construction on the four-acre site just off the National Mall until the next round of appropriations. It zeroes out federal funding for construction and asks for a progress report on private fundraising efforts for the $142 million memorial to former president and World War II hero Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Interior appropriators are also asking the 11-member commission (which includes four members of the House and three senators) to play nice with other parties involved in the process.

“The Committees urge the Commission to work with all constituencies — including Congress and the Eisenhower family — as partners in the planning and design process,” the bill states.

The design proposed by architect Frank Gehry has inspired public criticism from the Eisenhower family, scathing commentaries in the national media and some backlash from the federal bodies required to give final approval to the plan.

The commission issued a statement saying it is “pleased” Congress continues to authorize its work and provide operations funding, and indicating it would continue moving forward with the federal approvals process.

“As we continue the important process of memorializing Dwight D. Eisenhower, we are moving forward this year with the federal approvals process: continued approvals from both the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission,” the commission said in the statement.

Bruce Cole, a member of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission who has been highly critical of the current design, said the Gehry plan is “on life support.” The art historian and former National Endowment for the Humanities chairman has in the past likened the clusters of statues and colonnades planned for the 4-acre site to “a huge amusement park.” Cole hopes the congressional pressure might inspire a new plan for a memorial to Ike that better “reflects his ideals, values and modesty.”

The bill eliminates a waiver that allowed the commission to proceed with construction before funds for the memorial’s design and construction had been raised — making the commission responsible for raising most of the estimated $142 million if it wants to break ground before October.

Typically, federal law requires memorial sponsors to have full funding in place before construction permits are issued. In its fiscal 2012 appropriations, Congress granted a waiver from the “sufficient amounts” clause of the National Capital Memorials and Commemorative Works Act that would have allowed construction of the Eisenhower Memorial to proceed on a pay-as-you-go basis. For this fiscal year, they would eliminate that waiver, extending a provision introduced in October’s continuing resolution.

Chris Cimko, a spokesperson for the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, did not characterize that provision as a major setback. Landscape and design plans still need to be tinkered with to meet concerns from the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts, and materials testing required by the National Capitol Planning Commission are ongoing. Cimko also indicated the $1 million operating costs would be manageable and that the commission will be happy to provide a fundraising report to Congress. The bill would require the commission a table of private fundraising to date, which was still in its nascent phase as of late 2013, as well as the total obligations and expenditures of those funds.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who has proposed a bill to overhaul Gehry’s design and eliminate congressional funding for the commission, believes the Eisenhower Memorial Commission’s failure to clear the hurdles of the design phase should be a lesson to stakeholders.

“The handwriting is on the wall, and the commission should realize that what they have been trying to do so far is not working,” he said. “It’s not just Congress that’s objecting, it’s everyone else that has a say in the process.”

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