Though the House passed its fiscal 2013 legislative branch spending bill with little controversy Friday, outside groups are waging a fight over funding for the Architect of the Capitol that could set the tone for the Senate’s consideration in the weeks ahead.
On Tuesday, the American Institute of Architects and 10 other industry organizations sent a letter to leadership in both chambers, warning that House-endorsed cuts to the AOC budget could result in irrevocable damage to the aging structures of the Capitol campus.
“Numerous projects that are at risk in this budget are required to protect and preserve the historic features of the Capitol. Other projects are needed to address mechanical, plumbing and electrical defects,” the letter reads. “If not corrected, these problems threaten the safety and security not only of members of Congress and their staffs, but of the millions of people who visit the Capitol annually.”
The letter also argues that the longer these maintenance projects are deferred, the more expensive they will be to address later on.
“These projects are not discretionary, nor are they luxuries; their upkeep and maintenance is imperative to the effective operation of the Capitol. … Delays will undoubtedly lead to higher costs for taxpayers as defects worsen and repair costs rise due to inflation,” it reads.
While the $3.3 billion House-passed bill to fund the operations of Congress cut just 1 percent overall from fiscal 2012 and kept most line items flatlined or slightly increased, a disproportionate brunt of the cuts came from the AOC’s budget. The agency is slotted to receive $444 million, more than 10 percent less than its current allocation and 24 percent less than its request.
The cuts come at a time when many of the historic buildings on the Capitol campus are crumbling with age. But AIA and its allies are most concerned about how the proposed allocation would necessitate a halt in the ambitious and costly Capitol Dome restoration process. The first phase of the process is nearing completion, but $61.2 million needed to begin the second phase were not included.
“This happened last year, so it’s déjà vu all over again,” Andrew Goldberg, AIA’s managing director of government relations, told Roll Call in reference to the previous battle to secure funding for the AOC to begin the first stage in repairing the 150-year-old cast-iron structure worn with weather damage.
“It is pennywise but pound foolish, really, not to get this money,” Goldberg continued. “It’s going to cost more in the long run to keep deferring maintenance, but second of all, there is no structure or part of the Capitol they should be taking care of more than the Capitol dome, which is a symbol of democracy.”
Democratic appropriators also made this case during consideration of the House’s legislative branch bill.
“I’d prefer the Dome remain a monument to our nation’s greatness and not become a symbol for short-sighted austerity,” said Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), ranking member on the Appropriations Committee.
The Senate might be more sympathetic to these concerns. In separate interviews with Roll Call, Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and John Hoeven (R-N.D.), the chairman and ranking member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch, respectively, indicated that they would be looking to restore some funding for the Capitol dome restoration project.
Goldberg says he is cautiously optimistic.
“Based on what we’ve heard, we’re hopeful that at the end of the day, the money will be put there,” he said. “Our larger goal is we want to get to the point where we don’t have to fight this every single year … and to educate lawmakers that they are stewards of the Capitol and they have to take care of it.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.