The CVC ‘Gorilla’

Posted March 6, 2007 at 4:14pm

Someday, perhaps, we’ll all be proud of the Capitol Visitor Center. Those who have visited the cavernous facility beneath the Capitol’s East Plaza say it will be beautiful and functional when it is finally opened. But right now, no one knows for sure when that will be. So far, the project has been a management disaster.

When Congress ceremonially broke ground on the project in June 2000, its expected completion date was Inauguration Day 2005 and its anticipated cost was under $300 million. Target dates have been slipping — and costs rising — ever since. A year ago, then-Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman estimated that the center would be open by April 2007, just a few weeks from now.

In November, he said it would be done by the end of 2007. But last month, his acting successor, Stephen Ayers, told the House Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch that a certificate of occupancy might be obtained sometime next spring, after which it would take two or three months to actually make the facility available to visitors. Our guess is that we’ll be lucky if the center is open in time for Inauguration Day 2009.

As Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) said at the hearing, “This is the 200-pound gorilla that became the 265-pound gorilla [and] is now a 600-pound gorilla and you can convert those pounds into millions.” The current AOC estimate is $568 million, while the Government Accountability Office is projecting more than $600 million.

How did this get so out of hand? Well, some of the cost increases came as a result of security upgrades put into the plans in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But most of it came from space expansions, underground connections and mechanical systems added by the Architect on the basis of decisions made by high-ranking Congressional staff and inadequately overseen by Congressional leaders.

The project was supposed to be supervised by the 18-member Capitol Preservation Commission, made up of House and Senate leaders and committee chairmen. But, as Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) complained at the legislative branch hearing, “The principals never showed up” for meetings and “staff micromanaged this project from the beginning to its detriment.”

Moreover, House Republican leaders abandoned systematic oversight by eliminating the subcommittee on the legislative branch itself during the 109th Congress, leaving the job to the Senate, which did hold 15 hearings over the years and requested a “lessons learned” report from the Architect and the GAO. Unfortunately, the AOC has requested that the report not be released to the public.

To their credit, Democrats have revived the subcommittee on the legislative branch under the aggressive leadership of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), but the CVC deserves the attention of top leaders lest the project continue to be an embarrassment to all who advocated it, including this newspaper.