Tour Guides Upset With Shuffle

Agency Employees Don’t Want to Join Architect’s Office

Posted April 24, 2007 at 6:45pm

While Congressional leaders believe placing the Capitol Guide Service under the Architect of the Capitol will provide better governance when the new visitor center opens, tour guides are concerned they are being forced to join a dysfunctional agency.

One component of the Capitol Visitor Center governance plan will take Congress’ tour guides off the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms payroll and place them in the AOC’s office under a new chief executive officer of visitor services. It’s a move that one tour guide said this week feels like “a hostile takeover.”

“I feel like I’m going to be fired from one job and hired for another without any choice,” the tour guide said. “Frankly, the Architect’s office, from all we’ve read and seen, is not a place we want to work.”

The Capitol Guide Service currently has 70 full-time employees, a number that is expected to increase to more than 200 by the time the Capitol Visitor Center opens, currently scheduled for the fall of 2008. The 130-year-old agency has, since the 1970s, had a separate appropriation within the legislative branch spending bill under “Capitol Guide Service and Special Services Office.”

The office’s director of visitor services, Tom Stevens, declined to comment on the governance plan when reached on Tuesday.

When the House Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch held a CVC oversight hearing Tuesday, ranking member Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) questioned acting Architect Stephen Ayers about the plan to move the guide service. He specifically wanted to know how the benefit plans for tour guides, some of whom have worked at the Capitol for decades, would be protected during the transition.

The AOC and Capitol Guide Service currently operate under two separate employment plans and the AOC does not offer a tuition repayment plan, which officials say is a key recruiting tool.

One tour guide said this week that “between our current benefits and college repayment plan … right now it works. This just doesn’t seem necessary. The Capitol Police will work down there. Why aren’t they taking the Capitol Police and putting them under the Architect?”

Ayers, who recently established an “operations transition team” under the leadership of the agency’s chief administrative officer, David Ferguson, noted that the AOC has begun to study how to effect a seamless transition for the Capitol Guide Service. He acknowledged that agency officials are concerned about grandfathering current employee benefits packages into the AOC due to the cost associated with maintaining the two systems. But he noted that, in his view, it will be a positive step to have visitor services and all of the CVC’s operations under one organization.

But Wamp seemed less sure.

“We’re all pleased that we’re finally understanding what the [House and Senate leadership] want out of this governance quandary. But I’m just not sure how its going to work.”

Wamp added that the Capitol Guide Service already performs quite well.

“There’s not a whole lot of aspects of the legislative branch that has worked as well as the current setup,” he said in reference to the guide service, which is overseen by a Capitol Guide Board made up of the same individuals — the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms, the House Sergeant-at-Arms and the Architect of the Capitol — who sit on the Capitol Police Board. The current structure, Wamp explained, guarantees that visitor services issues and Capitol security are intimately linked.

“Yet here we go in a sense reinventing the wheel,” he said. “What’s to guarantee that the efficiency of this new system is going to match the current system?”

Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer, who currently serves as head of both the Capitol Guide Board and Capitol Police Board, said he is in favor of the new governance structure but acknowledged that there will be some administrative challenges to overcome.

“The devil will be in the details,” Gainer said. “Those administrative hurdles are not insurmountable. I know they they are very, very important to the people involved.”

With guidance from the CVC governance plan created by leadership, “we’ll move swiftly to put the legislation together to make it happen so it’s fair to the people who have been employed in the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms office,” he said.

At the same time, Gainer said the guide board is unanimous in its desire to maintain its own identity and could possibly expand to include the new executive director of the CVC. But he said that the tight link between visitor services and security would remain intact.

In other AOC news, House and Senate conferees included the higher of two figures, $50 million for the Architect’s office, in the fiscal 2007 emergency supplemental funding bill. The money is allocated for the AOC to begin immediately addressing health and safety concerns in the utility tunnels that run beneath Capitol Hill. In the 2006 emergency spending bill, Congress gave the AOC $27.6 million for tunnel work.