House Appropriations ranking member Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.) acknowledged Tuesday that he has staged a three-week block on the approval of plans for the House office space that will flank the Capitol Visitor Center, disparaging schematics that he claims failed to provide sufficient “work space” for lawmakers and their staffs.
“I do not intend to sign any approval orders to go forward with this plan as it now exists,” Obey confirmed Tuesday, immediately following a House Appropriations Committee hearing.
Both the Appropriations chairman and ranking member have the right to block plans for space designated to their respective chambers as part of the CVC project.
During the hearing, which focused on the Architect of the Capitol’s $506 million fiscal 2006 budget proposal, Obey blasted plans for the 85,000-square-foot space.
“We’re very far along and as I review the situation, I question whether we’re getting the working space we need,” Obey said, adding that the current design amounts to “all show and very little work space.”
Displaying a diagram of the new office space, Obey said his concerns focus on the “middle level” of three-floor structure, part of the 588,000-square-foot visitor center now under construction on the East Front.
That portion of the structure includes a 3,200-square-foot hearing room — equal in size to the existing Ways and Means Committee room — with a 65-person dais, as well as two meeting rooms, a nearly 2,200-square-foot room and a smaller 1,830-square-foot room. The plans also show a 13,000-square-foot television and radio studio.
“They have essentially one large room which for all practical purposes is a media center, a propaganda center,” Obey asserted. He later cited estimates that show the media space accounts for 30 percent of the structure, followed by meeting space at 20 percent, while public hearing rooms account for only 5 percent of the building.
The Wisconsin lawmaker said his primary concern is that the current design does not include a room large enough to be used for House-Senate committee conferences. He cited difficulties with the size of current facilities, including Room HC-5, located in the Capitol’s East Front extension.
“What we need is more practical working space,” Obey said.
Among his complaints, Obey cited the design of the structure’s main hearing room, which includes 25-foot vaulted ceilings, and asserted that if the design was “less grandiose” the area could be used for two separate hearing rooms with lower ceilings.
Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman defended the design of the hearing room, stating that the high ceilings were needed in part to accommodate cameras and lighting.
Obey likewise railed against the inclusion of the 450-seat Congressional auditorium, which AOC officials have said is designed to serve as an alternate House chamber in case of emergency or should the chamber need to be renovated. He noted that the project was initially proposed as an auditorium for the use by the Library of Congress.
“This is a space in search of a mission,” Obey stated.
Although Hantman stated at several points during the hearing that current plans had been reviewed by and received approval from the House Office Building Commission — which is made up of the Speaker, Majority Leader and Minority Leader — Obey said he will continue to oppose the project unless changes are made.
Obey is able to block the project’s approval under a provision included in the fiscal 2002 legislative branch spending bill that prohibits the Architect from obligating funds without the approval of both the chair and ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee or the Senate Appropriations Committee, for their respective spaces.
“It does not hurt to take a few extra days and ask if this project is on track,” said Obey, who noted that he also had concerns over the planned use of the Senate’s portion of the visitor center, an 85,000-square-foot space on the north end of the site.
House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) acknowledged Obey’s concerns, stating after the hearing: “We don’t have exactly the same view, but Mr. Obey is raising very legitimate questions about working space. … I think he deserves some answers to that.”
However, Lewis said that he does not foresee a “bureaucratic stalemate” erupting over the issue, adding of Obey: “He doesn’t want to stand in the way.”
During the hearing, lawmakers also raised concerns over the price tag of the visitor center — which now stands at $421 million and which Hantman testified is expected to reach $517 million when the structure is completed — as well as the projected opening date for the facility.
The Architect testified that completion of the visitor center is now slated for September 2006 — at which time visitors should be able to use the facility, including its cafeteria, bathrooms and orientation theaters — and added that he would like to see the Senate and House office space, as well as an exhibition space within the central facility completed at the same time.
Several lawmakers, including Obey, remained skeptical. “I’d be happy if this thing were open by Labor Day 2007,” Obey stated that the hearing’s outset.
But the Appropriations chairman said he remains upbeat about the project, despite its difficulties: “I’m not nearly so unoptimistic about how the public will react to this. I think they’ll be very impressed about what it actually does in terms of access,” Lewis said after the hearing.