Lawmakers Question Capitol Maintenance Projects

Posted May 7, 2009 at 6:53pm

Senators on Thursday questioned the need for Capitol complex maintenance projects such as plans to spend $7 million to enclose a stairwell and $12 million to provide more exits at the Library of Congress’ Jefferson Building.“I’m very supportive — absolutely supportive — of having strong fire and life safety,— said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch. “I do have to question whether applying the gold standard to the legislative branch is appropriate.—The Architect of the Capitol estimates that Congressional buildings have about $1.4 billion in deferred maintenance — from fixing the underground utility tunnels to patching up countless leaks.But Murkowski and other members of the subcommittee characterized some of the requested fixes as over the top at a Thursday hearing.Lawmakers questioned the relative importance of enclosing stairwells to block out smoke in the Cannon House Office Building and the Russell Senate Office Building when both have fire-safety sprinklers and are partly made of marble.Other branches of government seem to have more flexibility in such cases, while the legislative branch is held to a “higher standard,— said subcommittee Chairman Ben Nelson (D-Neb.).“If we are being held to a higher standard, it can affect the budget obviously,— he said. “We just want to make sure there’s equality and fairness, as well as comparability, to other branches.—Many of the projects in the AOC’s budget are related to hazards cited by the Office of Compliance, which is tasked with alerting Congress to life and fire safety hazards. So far, the office has identified about 9,000 hazards.Occasionally, the OOC issues citations for long-outstanding hazards — such as the unenclosed stairwells in the Cannon Building. That hazard was identified in 2000, and it’s now high on the priority list. But the Cannon building is also undergoing a complete renovation in two years.“I hope we would agree that spending $7 million is not the prudent thing to do if we’re going to do the whole building renovation in two years,— Murkowski said, later adding, “I guess I get a little frustrated because I want us to exert common sense.—The Architect of the Capitol is asking for about $644 million for fiscal 2010, a 20 percent budget increase that is mostly due to $118 million in maintenance requests. The OOC, meanwhile, is asking for $4.7 million — a 10 percent increase.But Nelson made it clear that those increases were unlikely.“We’re not eager to increase the overall legislative branch budget,— he said. “This is not the year for the nice-to-haves.—