It’s Budget Constraint Time for the AOC

Posted September 17, 2010 at 6:13pm

Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers has often outlined an ambitious vision for renovating the Capitol complex and decreasing Congress’ energy consumption.

But a Congress reluctant to spend money on its own facilities, especially during a time when American households’ own budgets are constrained by a bad economy, looks to hamper his vision — at least this coming fiscal year.

The AOC requested more than $750 million for fiscal 2011 to help with stewardship of the Capitol and its campus, including the Capitol Visitor Center, Senate and House office buildings, Supreme Court, Library of Congress and Botanic Garden — 16.5 million square feet of facilities and 450 acres of grounds in all.

“We face the daunting challenge of addressing deferred maintenance within the Capitol complex, while grappling with constrained resources,” Ayers wrote in his budget justification. “As the buildings have continued to age, and the available funding has not kept pace, the backlog has continued to grow.”

But House and Senate appropriators have both now released budgets for the upcoming fiscal year that not only bestow less money than requested on the AOC’s office but cut its funding from current levels.

In July, the House Appropriations Committee endorsed a bill allotting the AOC just more than $500 million, excluding funding for Senate projects.

And on Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a bill that would, excluding financing for House projects, grant the AOC even less — about $442 million.

While the bills still need full approval from both chambers and then must be reconciled, one thing seems certain: The AOC will be tackling the same number of issues with far less money.

A deteriorating Capitol complex, a $1 billion maintenance backlog and thousands of “high risk” safety hazards along with a more meager budget will mean that Ayers will have to make tough decisions to prioritize maintenance projects.

Ayers spokeswoman Eva Malecki said the agency does not comment on pending legislation.

But one project that looks to take a hit is the rehabilitation of the very crown of the Capitol complex: its glistening Dome.

The Senate Appropriations Committee bill would grant the AOC only half of the $20 million requested to repair and preserve the Dome’s cast-iron structure and masonry walls within the skirt area.

“The Committee suggests that the Architect of the Capitol seek alternative sources of funding to accomplish this work,” such as reprogramming funds from prior years, the budget report states.

The agency has $20 million in unobligated funds that it could use to shore up certain underfunded projects.

But underfunded — or flatly unfunded — maintenance projects run rampant across the pages of the Senate’s proposed legislative branch budget.

Projects such as roof and skylight replacement and terrace waterproofing of the Senate office buildings, exterior stone and metal preservation of the Capitol, and elevator modernization of the Library of Congress would be denied funds.

The troubled Capitol Power Plant utility tunnels would see half the requested financing.

Though the House hasn’t released an itemized breakdown of proposed funding for AOC projects, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), chairwoman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch, suggested in July that the committee could reprogram funds that were left over from completed projects or projects that came in under budget from prior years to fund major projects while delaying less urgent ones.

The AOC took a further hit last week when the Government Accountability Office ruled that the agency cannot install battery recharging stations for hybrid and electric vehicles without prior statutory authority.

The AOC wants to install the stations so Members and staff can recharge their cars while they work. But the GAO ruled that the AOC can’t use appropriated funds for such a project, nor set up a system whereby drivers reimburse the recharging and utility costs of their private electric or hybrid vehicles.

Instead, Congress must legislate such a program, the GAO ruled. With the October recess fast approaching and November’s midterm elections on the horizon, the probability that such a law would be passed anytime soon is slim, shackling what would be a major step in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) Green the Capitol Initiative.