House Faces ‘Disconnect’ Over CVC Funding

Posted June 25, 2003 at 6:34pm

There’s a growing chasm between House appropriators and leadership over Capitol Visitor Center funding, and while it’s certain to make a lot of noise, all indications are that the money for the project will eventually be there.

“I think there’s a pretty huge disconnect between our committee and those leadership” staffers who have carried “this thing from the beginning,” said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), who sits on the Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch.

The full committee is set to mark up the legislative branch fiscal 2004 spending bill today with language stipulating that no more money will be spent until the panel reviews a General Accounting Office analysis of the project’s costs.

The GAO assessment, which was requested by the Appropriations Committee, estimated that the project could need as much as $47.8 million more.

The 580,000-square-foot subterranean center currently has a $373.5 million price tag. To date, no money has been appropriated for cost overruns, although supplemental funding requests for that purpose are widely expected soon.

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), who chairs the legislative branch subcommittee, has said he doesn’t intend to give the project an infusion of funds. He has gone so far to suggest that major elements of the project — including the auditorium — be cut to make up for the unanticipated additional costs.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (D-Texas) seemed to back Kingston up at a talk with reporters Tuesday: “We have the ultimate confidence in Jack Kingston. He is scrubbing it with everything he can get his hands on.”

But Kingston’s wish that no more money be put into the CVC is probably ill-fated.

“Luckily for us, he doesn’t have the final say,” a leadership aide said. “There’s a lot of people who support it,” including the bipartisan House leadership and Appropriations Chairman Bill Young (R-Fla.).

As for when the subcommittee chairman may be told to stop griping and get on board, the aide said: “The point might be coming.

“The things he’s talking about would make it cost more later. He’s being pennywise and pound foolish. The reckoning will come within the committee. This is supposed to last as long as the Capitol lasts,” the aide added.

House Appropriations spokesman John Scofield said the panel is merely “looking at a big project and doing oversight.”

“No one’s saying we’re making any kind of changes. The committee doesn’t want to do this on the cheap, but at the same time we need to make sure the taxpayers’ dollars are being well spent,” he added.

The back and forth going on in the House over additional funding for the CVC has not been mirrored in the Senate, where no Member, at least publically, is threatening to hold up funding.

Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch, said he recently told Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) that if “we don’t get an increased spending limit,” the project might be slowed down.

“He assured me he’s going to try,” Campbell said. “You can’t go backward. [We’re] trying to do it right. I haven’t talked to anyone who is against it except Congressman Kingston.”

Although Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss.) insists that the Architect of the Capitol “shouldn’t just have a blank check,” he supports the project in broad terms and wants to see it completed as planned.

“This is not about the Congress. This is about the constituents,” Lott said, echoing similar comments from many Members on both sides of the Capitol who support the project. Just as often, detractors, including Kingston, rail the project as using scarce taxpayer money to feather Congress’ own nest.

The CVC will actually provide amenities to visitors as well as Members and staff. The center is designed to take care of tourists’ basic needs with restrooms, food and a place to wait to get into the Capitol without standing in the rain or sweltering heat while also providing a venue to learn about Congress and the building’s history.

At the same time, many Members saw the opportunity with this project to augment the Capitol in ways they have wanted or needed to do for years, including providing 170,000 square feet of “shell” space to relieve overcrowded conditions throughout the complex (costing $70 million), additional security ($48.5 million), an auditorium (the Capitol currently has virtually no place to host more than 200 people) and utility renovations.

All the broad scope changes were voted up or down, but some House appropriators still think that leadership staff put together the CVC without broad consensus.

“This is a huge expenditure and there’s never been a true floor debate on it,” Kingston said at the June 19 markup.

LaHood agreed. “This thing was a leadership decision — about five people decided they wanted a visitor center. It was never ever debated,” he said.

Appropriations ranking member David Obey (D-Wis.) attended the subcommittee markup and noted the same thing.

“I don’t think the leadership in either party knew sufficiently what this was going to cost or how it was going to be managed,” Obey said.

A few months ago Obey railed against Architect Alan Hantman for inadequate management of the project but noted at the markup that the AOC seemed to have a better hold on the project recently.

But LaHood emphasized that the AOC needs to check in with the appropriators as often as they do the Speaker’s office.

“Any changes, any kind of major manipulation in the plans I think the Architect believes he’s responsible to the Speaker’s office,” LaHood said.

The Appropriations Committee, he said, “ought to have full oversight. I suggested to [Kingston] that he arrange a meeting with [Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.)] … to determine who is going to be responsible for this ultimately,” LaHood said. “Most Members see the hole and they have no concept of what’s going on, how much it costs. A lot of Members ask ‘What’s going to go in there?’”

But House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) said: “This thing has been around. People have known. The leaders on both sides of the aisle wanted it. The membership wanted it. It’s too late to slam the door on it now.”

Hastert spokesman John Feehery agreed.

“There’s been bipartisan support for this project. It’s unfortunate that there have been some cost overruns, but the Speaker still supports getting this done as quickly and effectively as possible.”

At the legislative branch markup last week, Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) told his fellow subcommittee members that they could properly oversee the project without railing against Congress itself.

“I want it to be a straight, rational, serious debate. To the extent this subcommittee can take the lead in that, I think we are where the buck stops,” he said, adding that he doesn’t want to see “some kind of derby out on the floor where people are outdoing themselves in flagellating the institution.”

Jennifer Yachnin and Ben Pershing contributed to this report.