More Problems Prompt Effort to Revamp AOC

Posted August 1, 2007 at 6:29pm

After two consecutive mornings filled with gloomy reports of scheduled changes and rising cost estimates for Architect of the Capitol construction projects, one top Republican on Capitol campus issues said the 200-plus-year-old AOC is an outdated “dinosaur” in desperate need of “sweeping reforms.”

And while Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) leveled his criticisms, the chairwoman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), hinted that major managerial changes could be on the way at the AOC in the near future.

“We’ll be announcing something in a few weeks,” she said. “We really are taking a hard look at the way business is done [at the AOC] and just because it has always been done that way doesn’t mean that that works for today.”

Wamp, the ranking member of the subcommittee, added that “the Architect of the Capitol as an institution, because of the way it has evolved, has proven that in this modern world of efficiency in procurement and construction management, it’s a dinosaur.”

The comments from two House Members charged with crafting the spending allocation for the legislative branch came after a Wednesday hearing on the ongoing health and safety concerns that continue to plague the utility tunnels that run beneath Capitol Hill.

Just one day after a top AOC official told the appropriators that another two-month delay was “likely” for the $600 million Capitol Visitor Center project, the Government Accountability Office reported that it will be “very difficult” for the AOC to fix the many problems in the tunnel system within the next five years — a time period the agency agreed to earlier this year.

Acting Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers stated Wednesday that abating all the hazards within five years would be an “aggressive” goal for the agency.

Ayers also reported that the latest cost estimate for fixing the myriad structural and health and safety problems in the tunnel system would cost somewhere in the range of $200 million to $250 million. A year ago the AOC’s preliminary utility tunnel improvement plan, developed under then-Architect Alan Hantman, estimated that the cost of mitigating hazards and extending the useful life of the tunnels would be approximately $133.4 million.

In the past two years Congress has appropriated more than $77 million to fix the tunnels, including $50 million in emergency supplemental funding this year. (For fiscal 2008, the AOC requested $24.8 million in additional funding for the tunnels.)

But since 2006, the AOC has only expended about $3.7 million of the funding made available for the tunnels and has obligated about $27.6 million.

“The bottom line is that Congress has made funds available and given the AOC everything it has asked for, but at the AOC’s current rate of spending, it will be very difficult for the AOC to meet its goals in the next five years,” Terry Dorn, the GAO’s director of physical infrastructure issues, said at Wednesday’s hearing.

Dorn pointed out that with the AOC spending most of its tunnel funding right now on assessments and studies, the system’s physical conditions tunnels remain substantially unchanged.

Congressional scrutiny of the AOC handling of the tunnel issues stems from an Office of Compliance complaint filed on Feb. 28, 2006, that cited the agency for three life-threatening hazards in the utility tunnels: falling concrete, a lack of a reliable communications system and insufficient egress points. The OOC issued the complaint after the AOC failed to comply with repeated citations dating back to the late 1990s. Additional citations for dangerous asbestos exposure and high heat levels also were issued against the AOC last year.

Not long after the complaint was filed, the 10-man team that maintained the steam and chilled-water pipes in the tunnels came forward to ask Congress for help in fixing the safety hazards that they say the AOC ignored for years.

The crew members later filed a retaliation complaint with the Office of Compliance in October 2006, claiming their jobs had been threatened, they had been harassed for seeking independent medical testing and they had been denied hazardous-work pay since they asked for help from Congress.

In May of this year, the AOC and Office of Compliance finally reached a settlement on the 2006 complaint, and it was that settlement that gave the AOC five years to fix the Occupational Safety and Health Act violations.

In June, the AOC and the tunnel workers reached a settlement on the crew’s claims of retaliation. But the workers are still seeking compensation for the physical injuries that they say is a result of their years working in the tunnels.

On Wednesday, the former supervisor of the AOC’s tunnel team, John Thayer, appeared before the subcommittee to talk about the ill effects he, his men and now their families are experiencing a result of asbestos in the tunnel system.

“Our families now have to sit back and watch their loved ones suffer, assuming they don’t get sick from the volume of dust we took home over the years for them to unknowingly breathe,” Thayer said. “The AOC knowingly was aware and left us to suffer in the hazardous environment. … Take care of the men and their families who have given everything they had to support the Congress.”

When asked by Members for some explanation as to how the men and tunnels were ignored for seven years by AOC managers, Ayers — who joined the agency as chief operating officer 18 months ago before taking over the agency — blamed “management breakdowns” and, more specifically, poor internal communications, a lack of independent third-party oversight and a lack of a prioritization system in which life-safety issues could rise to the top.

“This business of ignoring the tunnels for this long a period of time just exposed the weaknesses of the [AOC’s] bureaucracy that frankly is a vestige of the past,” Wamp said. “We have to have much more accountability.”

To begin fixing the system, Wamp said Congress needs to change the way the Architect of the Capitol is selected to ensure that House as well as Senate overseers find someone who is not only a licensed architect but also has a strong construction management background who can do the job effectively.

Ayers is currently leading the AOC after Hantman’s term expired in February. The next Architect only will be the second to be selected under a 1989 statute that not only established a 10-year term for the post but also laid out a search-and-nomination procedure in which a bipartisan, bicameral commission of Congressional leaders forwards three names to the president, who then chooses a nominee subject to Senate confirmation.

But Wamp has argued in the past that the search process — which is overseen by the Senate Rules and Administration Committee — and the confirmation ensures that Architect is naturally beholden to the Senate over the House.

Both Wamp and Wasserman Schultz revealed that they will soon be submitting legislation together to change the selection process.

“Thankfully the CVC is a once every 150 years proposition and that has compounded the problems, but it has also exposed the weaknesses of the bureaucracy of the Architect of the Capitol,” Wamp said. “The good news of still having a year and a half left on the CVC is that it continues to point out the woes of a huge bureaucracy that evolved into an institution that was not held accountable and was not prepared to do the things that it has done.