While there can be a steep learning curve when it comes to oversight of Congress’ own operations, Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) appears upbeat about the possibilities in his new job as legislative branch cardinal.
“I’m excited about having an opportunity to be chairman of the subcommittee on the legislative branch,” Allard said of his Appropriations assignment. “Obviously there are some real challenges there, but I like challenges, so I’m looking forward to dealing with them.”
While Allard’s predecessor, former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), served as a staunch supporter of the Capitol Police Department — a former police officer himself, Campbell backed such projects as the creation of a mounted unit — the new chairman said he won’t play favorites among the legislative branch agencies.
“I don’t come in with any set agenda except that we’d like to have the agencies work efficiently and effectively, and provide good service and see if we can save some taxpayer dollars along the way,” said Allard, who will hold his first hearing today.
The subcommittee is scheduled to hear testimony on fiscal 2006 budget requests from both the Secretary of the Senate and the Architect of the Capitol. Among the projects likely to be addressed during the hearing is the CVC — the Architect will seek an additional $36.9 million for construction of the center, now priced at $421 million — which has drawn the ire of some lawmakers over allegations of overspending and mismanagement.
Both Allard and House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) have suggested additional oversight is needed for the 588,000-square-foot center now under construction on the Capitol’s East Front.
“I believe that deserves some serious oversight,” Lewis said. “It does involve the Architect, and I intend not to take just a hard look but a very, very tough look at that.”
Lewis added: “And if nobody but nobody connected with our institution seems to be happy with the way the job is being done, then oversight is one of the ways we can try to get a handle on that.”
In the face of such criticisms, CVC officials have repeatedly defended the project, noting that despite setbacks that included a three-month shutdown after the 2001 terrorist attacks, construction is only nine months behind the schedule set at the center’s 1998 groundbreaking.
Additionally, the project’s managers note that while the center’s budget has grown significantly from its initial $265 million figure, the majority of those funds were sought by Congressional lawmakers for expansions, such as the completion of House and Senate office space. The AOC did request an increase of $48 million for construction costs in fiscal 2004.
Late last week, Allard said he had begun to review the project, noting: “There are some things, probably not such good decisions that were made early on the Capitol Visitor Center … that probably put us in the hole right at the very start and almost assured us that we were going to have problems as we moved in.
“Now that it’s probably too late, we have to struggle on and do the best we can,” Allard added. “We’re obviously in a hole, but we just need to do the best we possibly can at this point in time.”
Similarly, Allard also discussed the Capitol Police, including the full Appropriations panel’s decision to provide the agency more than $23 million in additional funds in its version of the fiscal 2005 supplemental spending bill.
“We tried to look at what their emergency needs are,” Allard explained. “The purpose of the supplemental is to not use it as a way of running regular program dollars but to look at those things where you have unexpected expenses especially as it related to 9/11 and the terrorist threat.”
The Senate legislation provides $10 million for salaries, including money for an additional 50 officers, and another $13.3 million for general expenses.
Allard said a portion of that money will be placed into a reserve fund for emergency situations, including an increase of the federal terror alert level to its highest levels.
“Our security environment around here … can change very quickly,” Allard said. “So we do have about $10 million in case we get a ‘red alert’ and we need to act quickly.”
Additionally, the bill provides $23 million to the AOC to replace a Capitol Police package screening facility located in the city’s Southeast quadrant that would be displaced by the construction of a new stadium for the Washington Nationals.
“You need to be sure that those check-in points are workings, otherwise our security begins to break down here in the Capitol,” Allard said of the screening facility.
While the Senate’s proposal for the Capitol Police would amount to less than half of the $59.5 million supplemental sought by Chief Terrance Gainer, who had requested $36.5 million for salaries and $23 million for general expenses, it still far exceeds the House version, which did not provide any additional funds to the 1,600-officer department.
“We’ve had a very significant change in security requirements around the Capitol, and I’m a little concerned that maybe there’s a tendency to say that the answer to security problems means throwing money at the process and that means more bodies,” Lewis said. “But more bodies are not necessarily the only answer to making sure our security is all that it can be. I want to take a hard look at that.”
Unlike the Senate, the House will review legislative branch appropriations requests at the full committee level. The House eliminated its legislative branch panel earlier this year under a larger reorganization plan that reduced the overall number of Appropriations subcommittees.
“I brought the legislative branch back to the central office on this side because I’ve had a lot of experience with the legislative branch,” explained Lewis, who spent a decade as the ranking member of the legislative branch subcommittee, relinquishing that post in 1992. “I spent a lot of time on that committee, and I believe there’s a need for serious oversight of a number of elements of the legislative branch.”
Still, Allard said he believes the discrepancy will not create considerable difficulties in hammering out the legislative branch spending bill.
“I don’t think that our committees need to match precisely in order for us to be able to put these things together and work together,” Allard said, noting that he has a “great relationship with” the House chairman.
“We’re going to get along just fine,” added Allard, who unexpectedly took the subcommittee’s reins after Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who had been tapped to head the panel, moved to the subcommittee on the District of Columbia. “Obviously we’ll have our own concerns; I have to worry about the Senate, he has to worry about the House, but on a personal basis, I think we’re on the best of relationships.”
Ben Pershing contributed to this report.