CVC Watch

Posted October 8, 2008 at 5:24pm

The Capitol Visitor Center — a building that took eight years and $621 million to build — will open on Dec. 2 with a tight budget and limited services.

[IMGCAP(1)]Few expenses were spared in building the largest-ever expansion of the Capitol. The underground center is 580,000 square feet of marble floors, bronze handrails and immense skylights.

But a struggling economy and a continuing resolution have limited officials to the bare minimum for the CVC’s long-awaited opening day. Members didn’t add anything extra in the CR; instead, the Architect of the Capitol will pay the bills until March using last year’s budget level.

CVC officials have been unclear on how this will affect the opening, though Chief Executive Officer Terrie Rouse told Members in September that it will lead to some “belt-tightening.”

In prepared testimony for an oversight hearing held by the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch, Rouse said officials will have to “defer some planned purchases and activities.”

“We have examined pending and future purchases, and have reprioritized activities to ensure we can fund essential items,” she wrote. “We are still concerned that unknown issues could drive additional funding shortfalls during a continuing resolution, but we will work with you and your staff if that should occur.”

But the CVC isn’t at a complete loss. The CR includes some operational funds for the center — the same appropriated for fiscal 2008, said Michael Culver, director of AOC’s Congressional and external relations. He acknowledged, however, that the budget doesn’t take into consideration the additional staff needed when the CVC opens.

To make sure the center has enough employees and the necessary services, he said, “We’ll exercise the flexibility allowed under the continuing resolution.” Translation: The agency may have to take money from other AOC accounts to make up for any shortfall.

The CVC will certainly be operating with less money than originally hoped. In fiscal 2008 — and thus under the CR — the CVC had an annual operating budget of about $8.5 million. For fiscal 2009, officials requested almost $13.5 million.

But CVC spokesman Tom Fontana said the funds will “provide adequate service during non-peak months.”

At least one purchase has been delayed until March, when CVC officials hope Congress will pass a new budget: six shuttles to transport disabled visitors to the CVC’s doors.

The vehicles are integral to the center because of a transportation plan that has tour buses drop off their passengers on the Capitol’s West Front, the opposite side of the Capitol from the CVC.

Most visitors will walk on their own to the other side, but those who can’t will use the shuttles, which hold about six passengers each. Until the new shuttles are purchased, the CVC will use the six they already have, which resemble golf carts.

Aside from that purchase, Rouse and other CVC officials won’t get specific on how they will cut back in the wake of the CR.

Indeed, some of those details won’t be worked out until President Bush signs a bill that sets up the CVC’s operational structure. Without the bill, the CVC couldn’t open many of its services.

After the House passed the bill in March, the two chambers took six months to negotiate changes to the bill. Much of the discussions focused on whether the center’s CEO or the AOC was ultimately responsible for hiring, spending and contracts, among other things.

Now the AOC makes the final decision with a recommendation from the CEO. The House passed the bill last week.