Filming Rules Trip Up CVC Coverage

Posted March 16, 2004 at 6:25pm

Several cable networks have recently sought to produce programs dedicated to the Capitol Visitor Center project, but a Senate committee’s strict interpretation of long-standing rules banning commercial filming on Capitol grounds thwarted what likely would have been positive stories.

For the past two years, the CVC has garnered largely negative coverage, both on national television and in newspapers across the country. For a host of reasons — including lawmakers’ disinclination to go out and “sell” the visitor center — the stories have focused primarily on the project’s expanding costs and extended deadlines.

The Discovery Channel approached Congress last fall about doing a piece for its “Extreme Engineering” series, an hour-long episode that highlights feats of architecture and design.

A spokeswoman for Discovery said the network made an “editorial” decision to scrap plans for a piece on the CVC. But the cable network also ran into trouble getting approval from Senate Rules and Administration.

The “Extreme Engineering” piece was approved by the offices of Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio), Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) as well as Clerk of the House Jeff Trandahl, according to several sources. All that was needed was an approval from Senate Rules, which never came.

“It’s not a question of good or bad coverage,” Rules Chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said. “This is a living, working facility. We have a pretty good system. [Ranking member] Chris Dodd [D-Conn.] enforced it in the same way when he was chairman.”

As a for-profit organization, Discovery ran into more than two decades of precedent restricting commercial filming on Capitol Hill. But in this area, Senate rules are more strict than those of the House and appear to have trumped the other chamber.

When HBO (another for-profit entity) began to film portions of “K Street” within the Capitol and the Senate office buildings, Lott and Dodd, in conjunction with their counterparts on the Ethics Committee, sent out a “Dear Colleague” outlining on what grounds such activity is prohibited. The four Senators cited chamber rules, stating that the use of Senate space for “filming involving or related to commercial ventures, including fictional movies, is expressly prohibited.” They added: “This prohibition also applies to the Capitol grounds.”

By contrast, during the filming of “K Street,” the House Administration Committee let it be known that while filming in the Capitol itself is expressly prohibited by statute, if a Member wanted to be filmed elsewhere by HBO, including in his or her office, that would be fine.

“The Rules Committee has certain policies they have to abide by,” CVC spokesman Tom Fontana said.

Senate Veto

The Senate’s more restrictive rules effectively allowed the chamber to veto filming anywhere on the Capitol grounds. But the refusal to allow Discovery to film the East Front construction is further clouded by the apparent jurisdiction of the Capitol Police, which has the authority to issue permits for filming on Capitol grounds. According to Sgt. Contricia Sellers-Ford, spokeswoman for the department, the Capitol Police are in charge of issuing permits for any filming on the grounds that requires a tripod. (Handheld filming is allowed on the grounds if traffic is not impeded, Ford said.) She said the agency was not made aware of any requests from Discovery.

A House source knowledgeable about rules governing filming confirmed that chamber’s understanding was that issuing permits for the Capitol grounds is the purview of the Capitol Police. He said the policy used in the past specifically made an exception for news or documentary filming or photography.

Even if the “Extreme Engineering” piece didn’t qualify as “news or documentary,” conceivably other cable networks that wanted to do similar pieces might have. According to several Congressional sources, The History Channel and National Geographic Television also wanted to dedicate segments or episodes to the CVC but were blocked.

NGTV, a for-profit subsidiary of the nonprofit National Geographic Society, hopes to do a program for PBS titled “Inside the Capitol,” devoting much attention to the visitor center.

“That’s going to be a huge part of that story,” said spokeswoman Ellen Stanley. “It takes a long time to get approval, so we we’re waiting.

“Hopefully the committees are looking at this. We exist for education. Everything we do feeds back to the National Geographic educational mission. It’s a great chance to do a great story,” Stanley said, explaining that NGTV has done “Inside” pieces on the White House, the FBI, the Vatican and Air Force One.

A knowledgeable aide indicated that there was “some discussion” of providing a waiver for educational programming. “The concern is that if you accommodate one, you have to open the doors to anyone who asks,” another source said.

‘Fleecing’ the CVC

A handful of Congressional insiders lamented the inability of the cable channels to film the CVC construction, especially in light of how much bad press the project has received nationally.

Most print coverage has been decidedly negative, with only a handful of stories discussing the benefits anticipated to come with the center’s completion and focusing more on the project’s $421 million price tag and the fact that the ribbon-cutting has been delayed until 2006. The CVC has fared even worse on television.

ABC’s “World News Tonight with Peter Jennings” did a largely negative segment last October. “If they ever finish it, the Capitol Visitor Center will be a nice introduction for tourists who want to see how Congress works. It is also an object lesson in how Congress works,” the narrator said.

ABC reporter John Cochran added: “The original cost estimate of the underground center was $265 million. But then, Congress added $70 million to expand their own office space, $35 million to upgrade security and another $48 million for cost overrides. A disgusted Congressman trying to hold down the costs says no one is in charge. The money just disappears into the ground.”

That Congressman was Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch. In an on-camera interview, he told ABC: “It’s, unfortunately, the poster child for Congressional and governmental inefficiency.”

By the end of last year, Kingston had become a consistent source of negative quotes, prompting Hastert to call the Appropriations cardinal in and tell him to stop slamming the project, according to several sources.

“The Speaker did not ask or request for me to say anything either way,” Kingston said, adding that Hastert told him that he had to continue to provide the support previous legislative branch chairmen have given the project, just as Hastert continued former Speaker Newt Gingrich’s (R-Ga.) support for it.

“There’s no real getting unstuck with it except to finish the project,” Kingston added.

But Kingston hasn’t provided the only negative comments. Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman provided NBC Nightly News a less-than-glowing sound bite for its “Fleecing of America” segment when asked about the potential for cost overruns: “If I had a crystal ball and knew what the costs were going to be over here, I’d be on Wall Street.”

And previous legislative branch chairmen have been hardly enthusiastic. Rep. Jim Walsh (R-N.Y.) attempted to win points in his district by saying — in remarks trimmed from the NBC piece and later printed in The (Syracuse) Post-Standard — that he opposed the “underground Taj Mahal” when he chaired the subcommittee in the late 1990s.

‘No True Believer’

Staffers familiar with the project’s oversight point as much to Members and aides as to the Architect’s office when assigning blame for the dearth of positive stories.

“Very few people feel positively about it internally, usually not for any good reason, they just don’t know [much about it]. There is no true believer who has the authority to go out and sell it,” said one knowledgeable aide. “There is no one tasked with going out there and putting lipstick on this pig.”

Even with an almost complete turnover in Congressional leaders since ground was broken, the bipartisan, bicameral leadership has spoken positively about the CVC over the past five years, but none has sought to take personal ownership of the project.

One aide noted that Fontana “is the only press person who in theory likes and believes in this project. [But] if he started going out there on his own, there would be push-back. Instead all he does is play catch.”

But another staffer criticized the Architect’s office for failing to coordinate its message, citing a press release that was sent out announcing the second-phase construction contract — more expensive than anticipated — on a Friday afternoon without adequately notifying key committees that could have helped soften the blow. “There was no strategy there. And that set off a chain reaction of negative stories,” the staffer said.

“Perhaps next year, we can discuss ways to bring attention to the project as it nears completion,” said another staffer involved with the CVC. “Because the schedule has already changed once, we don’t want to be too presumptuous. We don’t want to cut corners or sacrifice quality to meet an arbitrary date.”