Watchdog Takes Aim at Congressional ‘Pig Dig’

Posted June 18, 2007 at 5:56pm

Critics of the Capitol Visitor Center have long taken aim at Congressional tinkering with an already behind schedule and overbudget project. And, last week, the House Appropriations Committee may have given those critics more ammunition.

The report accompanying the House version of the legislative branch spending bill, which was marked up by the full panel last week, includes a note pointing out the committee’s dismay at “the failure of this project to provide adequate working space for Congress. Over $70 million will be spent for expansion space for the Congress, yet there is not one room in the CVC or the rest of the Capitol Building that is adequate for a meeting of Conferees of the Full Committees.”

The language in the report directs the Architect of the Capitol to study the options and costs of reconfiguring space in the Capitol, including the CVC, to meet those space needs. [IMGCAP(1)]

That note — along with an amendment to the bill that calls for a name change for the CVC’s Great Hall, a task that will cost an additional $250,000 if implemented — has caught the eye of Citizens Against Government Waste, a watchdog group that has twice put CVC funding measures on its yearly wrap-up of pork-barrel projects in the legislative branch spending bill.

The group’s president, Tom Schatz — who has in the past criticized Congress for including millions of dollars for private offices and then billing the CVC as a facility for the public — said the House’s latest concerns over office space shows how Congressional tinkering has been as detrimental to the project as AOC contractors missing construction deadlines.

“We’ve said all along this is a joint issue where everyone, including the Architect and Congress, is at fault,” Schatz said. “It appears [Congress is] again forcing the Architect to possibly change something that may cost a lot more money, and then they’ll turn around later and say, ‘Why is this costing more money?’”

Schatz added that the quarter-million dollars Congress will have to spend to change the name of the Great Hall to Emancipation Hall is another example of waste on a project that was projected to cost $265 million when construction began.

The name change “is not the most expensive change that Congress has caused, but it is something they could have thought of a long time ago” before the AOC’s contractors purchased signs for the space, Schatz said. “We haven’t changed it’s name over here. To us it’s still the ‘Pig Dig.’”

At an early June CVC progress hearing before a House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) — who serves as the full committee ranking member and has long been one of the staunchest supporters of the CVC — submitted a statement that defended the project’s rising price tag.

“While some have been critical of the expanded costs and timeline over the original estimates, there are clear reasons for both increases,” Mica said in a statement that was read on his behalf by Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.).

Mica said the scope and security requirements had to be rethought three times, after the fatal shooting of two Capitol Police officers in 1998, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the subsequent anthrax attacks on Capitol Hill.

“Each incident led to increases in the project’s size and security measures. In fact, there have been over 2,000 change orders since the project began,” Mica said in his statement. “Fortunately, the project was revised to incorporate a number of important security and life safety upgrades that will protect the public against explosives, chemical and biological attack, fire and other hazards.”

Mica pointed out that those changes account for almost $200 million in additional costs since the CVC was authorized in 1998.

“Other changes included numerous utility upgrades and the decision to finish the House and Senate expansion space now instead of finishing them 10 or 15 years later. While this decision added to the total cost, it saved tens of millions of dollars in the long run,” he said. “The old adage ‘you get what you pay for’ applies to the CVC, and the American people are getting far more than originally proposed and considered necessary before the September 11th and anthrax attacks.”