Story of the CVC

Tale of Mismanaged Expectations and Hill Foot-Dragging

Posted September 5, 2003 at 9:15am

In 1995, after more than a decade of internal discussions, Congress commissioned a design for a visitors center. The proposal came with a $125 million price tag, and the project was expected to be finished in 2000. Members anticipated raising most of the needed funds privately.

Construction of the Capitol Visitor Center finally began last year, with a budget of $373.5 million, of which $308.5 million was appropriated by Congress. As much as $48 million more could be needed, and the completion date is now set for December 2005.

But the story of how the CVC went from a relatively small — and almost entirely privately funded — project to the largest expansion the Capitol has ever seen and likely ever will — funded almost entirely by tax dollars — is not one of cost overruns and mismanagement.

It’s rather a tale of mismanaged expectations and Congressional foot-dragging, goals that have expanded exponentially coupled with a reticence by Members to be seen spending money on themselves.

Not Just a Visitor Center

The project’s name itself is somewhat of a misnomer. The CVC is actually at least three separate projects rolled into one for the purposes of contracting out the construction and, planners hoped, achieving economies of scale.

But rolling the projects together served another purpose: accomplishing under the guise of a visitor center structural improvements the Capitol has needed for years.

What began more than 10 years ago as a relatively simple concept for a subterranean center to provide amenities to visitors grew to include a handful of projects to augment the structure of the Capitol.

A truck tunnel under Constitution Avenue (to provide a secure, and more aesthetically pleasing, route for deliveries) and the renovation of the HVAC system and other infrastructure in the East Front of the Capitol — both big-ticket items distinct from a visitor center per se — together added about $25 million.

But by far the biggest addition to the project from its earlier designs is the 170,000 square feet of House and Senate expansion space — essentially additional office space.

Earlier plans called for the CVC to be flanked on either side by 85,000 square feet of unfinished space to be designated, and paid for, by each chamber at a later date. But after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Congress appropriated $70 million to finish the space, lumping it together with the existing project.

That move, in particular, opened the project up to criticism that it was as much of a clandestine benefit for Congress as a facility for visitors.

“The only understandable cost increase may be the $38.5 million in security enhancements which were not factored in during pre-Sept. 11, 2001, planning,” an official at Citizens Against Government Waste wrote in a letter to the editor to Roll Call in May, referring to money included in the emergency supplemental. “However, under the guise of security, Congress appropriated an additional $70 million for private offices in the CVC, which visitors will never use.”

But such skepticism of the project was present from at least 1992, when then-Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Calif.), who chaired the Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch, observed that the press had zeroed in on the fact that some 33 percent of the proposed 446,400 square feet of the center (as it was then designed) would be left vacant for possible future offices.

“People have focused on some elements of the visitors center as a hidden benefit” to Congress, Fazio said then, adding that the issue was detracting from any effort to provide the public with better accommodations. Fazio had initiated informal discussions about a visitor center in the 1980s, but a formal plan wasn’t completed until 1991.

“I guess for a few more years the public will continue to fry their brains out,” Fazio said.

Indeed, providing an indoor space for tourists waiting to enter the Capitol — and learn something about Congressional history in the process — has been the most consistent motivation for the CVC.

But as John Feehery, spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), said last spring, “We’re doing this for two reasons. First to make sure there’s a safer and more enjoyable and more informative experience for visitors to the Capitol, and second, we have a necessity [to] have more space to do the nation’s business.”

The CVC will certainly mitigate Congress’ severe space crunch. The Capitol Police, the Capitol Guide Service, as well as a first aid station, post office and gift shop, will all be housed in the center — freeing a substantial amount of space in the Capitol currently occupied by those entities.

House officials also hope the CVC will be used for receptions and constituent meetings. They maintain that the current space for such business — mostly HC-5 of the Capitol, as well as the Russell and Cannon caucus rooms — isn’t adequate.

The House expansion space will also include a new committee room for the Intelligence panel, a large hearing room second in size only to the current Ways and Means Committee’s space, and a new Radio and TV Gallery.

The Intelligence room will be equipped to support secure briefings and provide more conference rooms for staff. The panel currently operates out of a cramped area on the fourth floor of the Capitol because so few rooms meet its security requirements.

The undesignated hearing room could be used by conference committees, as it was designed to accommodate 60 Members with plentiful public seating.

Auditorium Controversy

Yet by far the biggest-ticket item in the project not intended for visitors is the 450-seat auditorium. It’s also the part of the facility most subject to controversy and confusion.

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), who currently chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch, has said repeatedly that Congress needs another auditorium like Washington needs another lobbyist. He has toyed, at least rhetorically, with getting rid of it.

Unlike other nonvisitor facilities added later, however, the auditorium was part of the CVC project from the beginning.

Yet during a recent hearing on the project, Members asked Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman why the auditorium was downsized from the 750 seats planned at one point to 450 seats, which would not be enough to hold a joint session of Congress.

“We’ve got this interim size that was sort of compressed,” said Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.), who sits on Kingston’s panel.

“What were we supposed to be doing with this auditorium?” asked Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), another member of the committee.

At first, Hantman didn’t really have an answer. He mentioned that the Library of Congress wanted to use it to show films.

The committee members were indignant: Why is Congress building a $20 million auditorium for the LOC to show films when for $34 million they could have gotten a big enough space for joint-chamber meetings, they asked.

In fact, the LOC was interested in an auditorium for its sole use since at least 1997, but more recently Congressional planners had other designs for the CVC auditorium.

Later in the hearing, Hantman said there was significant discussion among the 18 members of the Capitol Preservation Commission, which oversees the project, about how big and for what purpose the auditorium should be built.

As it stands, the room will be constructed to meet heightened security standards so that the House and Senate floors, which do not meet those standards, will no longer have to be used for chamber-wide intelligence briefings.

“There isn’t a room that large right now that can accommodate a secure briefing,” Hantman said.

In support of the facility, House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) has said Congress has a dearth of large meeting spaces and does not have adequate facilities for events such as the biennial office space lottery and freshman orientation.

Oversight Issues

Regardless of what the auditorium is ultimately used for, the mere fact that such a discussion was taking place more than a year into construction demonstrated a glaring lack of communication among the Congressional leadership — who have ushered this project among reluctant rank-and-file Members from the beginning — and committees of jurisdiction.

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

Such problems were supposed to be avoided when the CPC — composed of bicameral, bipartisan leadership — was given authority over the project in late 1999. Before then, intercommittee squabbles about oversight jurisdiction drew as much attention and energy as the project itself. Then-House Administration Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) and then-Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bud Shuster (R-Pa.) wrote a letter to Hastert earlier that year asking for House Administration to have total control over AOC daily operations, including the CVC.

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), an early proponent of the project, was so frustrated in early 1999 that he said, “Quite frankly, I wouldn’t care if the Pope were put in charge of the project, but somebody needs to take control.” The CPC was formed to solve the problems created by too many panels with jurisdiction — about which Hantman complained repeatedly, once even going so far as to say the project wouldn’t be complete until 2009 because of the layers of oversight.

But indicative of what was to come, at the first CPC meeting in late 1999, only seven out of the 18 members showed up, not enough for a quorum. So the committee’s first vote — authorizing the center’s conceptual design — was conducted as all later votes would be: informally, after each member was individually briefed.

Although bicameral, bipartisan leadership and relevant committee staff meet weekly with project managers, the CPC members themselves have never held hearings or assembled in the same room to discuss the project. And the commission has no dedicated staff.

(Without any one Member or committee “owning” the project, many have blamed Hantman for all of its perceived ills, especially because of the AOC’s handling of the Botanic Garden construction. But unlike that project, the General Accounting Office has identified no gross deficiencies in the management of the CVC. And, for the first time in Congressional history, the AOC hired an outside project-management firm.)

The lack of strong oversight from the CPC has led Kingston — who sits on that panel as well — to assert his role in the project, even though he admits his subcommittee is “coming in here a little later than we would have liked.”

At a July 15 hearing Kingston held on the project, Comptroller General David Walker relayed the GAO’s observations about the CVC’s management, planning and budget.

At one point LaHood told Walker, “What I was hoping your report would suggest [was] some kind of visitor center control board” made up of the Speaker, the Senate Majority Leader and other leaders.

Walker responded: “The CPC is the body that is theoretically responsible and accountable.”

Whether from the CPC’s silence or other causes, what has become clear in recent months is the almost total lack of institutional memory on the project, at least at the Member level.

Planning stretched over a period lengthy enough to see considerable turnover among relevant committee chairmen.

Thomas, for example, no longer chairs House Administration. Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) turned over his gavel at the Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch to Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) earlier this year. Fazio is no longer in Congress. Rep. Charles Taylor (R-N.C.), who chaired the legislative branch subcommittee until last year, gave way to Kingston. The new Members with authority over the CVC all have had significant learning curves and many lack any sort of history about the project or its goals.

Planning was drawn out for so many years primarily due to lack of funds. By law, all the money had to be in place before construction could commence.

And funding for the project has always come in fits and starts.

‘A Bureaucratic Nightmare’

Congress has discussed the concept of a visitor center for more than three decades, but it was not until Russell Weston Jr. allegedly killed two Capitol Police officers, Jacob Chestnut and John Gibson, in the summer of 1998 that the idea gained momentum and justified what some considered an “extravagant” sum. Within three months of the shootings, $100 million was appropriated.

Despite the infusion, the requisite $2.8 million needed to reformulate plans that were completed in 1995 was not released until 1999.

In a floor speech that year, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) lamented: “In fact, we are no closer to completion of this facility today than when these two officers were gunned down by this man, this terrorist. We need to move forward with this effort. However, we have created a bureaucratic nightmare.”

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) shared those sentiments. “I feel like if we don’t go forward with this, next time we have an incident, then somebody … is going to be digging around saying, ‘Why wasn’t something done about this?’”

In 2000, the Fund for the Capitol Visitor Center was set up to raise $100 million privately. Although the fund received $10 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, soliciting donations without the allure of naming rights was difficult. It shut down in 2002 after only raising $39 million (of which about $4 million is still outstanding), leaving the project $125 million short of its $265 million budget.

As of early September 2001, Congressional leaders began grappling with whether they would be able to provide the funding necessary to keep construction from being delayed.

“I think it is still very much alive as a concept, but the question is whether or not this is the right time in light of all of the budgetary situations,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said on Sept. 6, 2001.

Of course, everything changed five days later.

Almost immediately after the terrorist attacks Congress appropriated the remaining $100 million needed and added $38.5 million in security enhancements.

So again the pendulum swung from intense scrutiny and debate about the project to almost unconditional support.

But the $373.5 million budget (as it then stood with the addition of the $70 million buildout of the shell space) did not include a lengthy list of items that would later be added. Some were foreseeable and even anticipated. Others were not.

At the recent House hearing, Walker told the legislative branch subcommittee, “In many cases the increase in price is not necessarily because of cost overruns but scope changes. You wouldn’t see this in the private sector.

“Candidly, Mr. Chairman, let me say this for the record: When the first estimate was done for the project it was not based on updated specifications,” Walker added.

The $48 million that GAO recently said would be required to finish the project as designed represents the first “cost overrun.” Part of that is contingency funding that may never be needed, and part of it reflects items that were never budgeted.

“The way this was gone about is not an example of best practices,” Walker told the subcommittee.

Increased site-support services, including a temporary visitor-screening facility and the cataloguing, dismantling and restoring of historic features, pushed the project-management contract from $7 million to $16 million.

The Mylar coating put on the East Front windows for noise reduction cost $355,000 and was not in the original budget.

There were also additional costs for scaffolding on the East Front, the screening facility on the House side, additional tree preservation, the LOC tunnel, second connection to the CVC from the House side of Capitol (around the Memorial Door), as well as additional elevators to go all the way from the bottom of the CVC to the Capitol (in previous plans two elevators would be needed).

And while the price tag has kept rising — from a $100 million project in 1998 to a $265 million project in 2000 to a $373.5 million project in 2001 to an estimated $420 million project in 2003 — the completion date kept moving back.

‘Substantial Completion’

Early estimates had the project completed by 2000, but repeated delays in funding resulted in the first contract not even being awarded until spring 2002. The goal at that time was to have the East Plaza complete and the center ready to screen visitors in time for the 2005 inauguration. Now use of only the East Plaza itself is anticipated by January 2005.

The GAO analysis put the project 134 days behind “for a variety of reasons, including weather.” The Architect maintains that the project is more likely somewhere between 20 and 40 days behind, time that can be made up by further overlapping the work done by the first and second “sequence” contractors.

“Substantial completion,” defined as when Congress takes control of the facility, is scheduled for September 2005. Final completion — doors opening — is set for that December.

But if the region’s wet spring and summer turn into a wet fall and winter, even those dates could be pushed back. The contractors face penalties of approximately $15,000 a day if agreed-upon completion dates are not met. But unforeseen site conditions, bad weather, scope changes or other factors outside of the contractor’s control could push those dates back.