As Architect of the Capitol officials announced another six-month delay in the completion of the Capitol Visitor Center on Friday, House appropriators demanded that agency officials start getting realistic about deadlines for the massive underground project that broke ground almost seven years ago. [IMGCAP(1)]
Questions over acting Architect Stephen Ayers’ ability to set and meet construction milestones and finish the project in a timely manner led the way at Friday’s CVC progress hearing, forcing Ayers at one point to declare: “I will make [the CVC] my No. 1 priority for the organization.”
But CVC deadlines were only a few of a litany of issues members of the newly revived House Appropriators subcommittee on the legislative branch peppered Ayers about.
Members also expressed concerns over the use of women- and minority-owned businesses in the construction process, whether the Office of Compliance has been given appropriate access to inspect the facility for possible health and safety violations, why the CVC planned to have a “Great Hall” when the Library of Congress has long been home to Capitol Hill’s original Great Hall, and a variety of other matters.
Several Members also took time to note their satisfaction that the House was finally reasserting its role in this area of legislative branch oversight after the subcommittee was absorbed by the full Appropriations panel during the 109th Congress. During that time the Senate took the lead on CVC matters by holding 15 progress hearings on the East Front construction project over the past two years.
“I’m glad to say that we are back,” subcommittee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said.
Friday’s progress hearing was Ayers’ first as the acting head of the agency — he was named to the post after Alan Hantman’s 10-year appointment ran out earlier this month. As recently as November, Hantman had told Congressional overseers that the project would be completed by the end of 2007. But Ayers explained Friday that after “evaluating past contractor performance, schedules and the nature of issues that remain,” he determined that a certificate of occupancy for the new underground facility could not be obtained until sometime next spring. And then an additional two or three months would be required to make the facility ready to receive visitors.
Ayers’ announcement was just the most recent in a long history of revised deadlines for the AOC.
A year ago, the Architect estimated the center would be open by April 2007, and a year earlier the AOC was expecting a completion date of summer 2006. When the project first broke ground in June 2000, it was supposed to be completed in time for Inauguration Day 2005.
And as completion dates have slipped away, cost estimates have steadily risen.
“This is the 200-pound gorilla that became the 265-pound gorilla [and] this is now a 600-pound gorilla, and you can convert those pounds to millions” of dollars, said subcommittee ranking member Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.).
Ayers and CVC project executive Bob Hixon maintained that, including the $20 million in construction funding that the AOC has already asked for in its fiscal 2008 budget request, the facility could still be completed at a cost of about $550 million. But representatives of the Government Accountability Office, which has been helping Congress monitor the CVC since 2005, testified Friday that the final price tag for the facility likely would be in excess of $600 million and that the CVC would probably need an additional $15 million above its current fiscal 2008 request.
The GAO noted, and Ayers conceded, that the project continues to slip by about two weeks every month and as of Jan. 25 the AOC’s CVC contractor had met only two of 21 monthly “project milestones” scheduled for completion by Dec. 31, 2006. Two other milestones were completed late.
Wasserman Schultz called the prospect of having to revise the AOC’s fiscal 2008 budget request because the agency failed to meet unrealistic deadlines a “disturbing” scenario and added that she expects the agency to develop more realistic monthly goals to track progress than have been set in the past.
As several Members focused their questions on various aspects of the CVC’s oversight and management structure, Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) called out the Capitol Preservation Commission — the bipartisan, bicameral body of Congressional leaders that oversees the CVC — for contributing to the problem.
The 18-member CPC was formed in late 1999 to solve the problems created by too many panels having jurisdiction over the CVC. LaHood has raised concerns for years that the members of that body have deferred their responsibilities to staffers and oversight has only become more complicated as a result.
At the first CPC meeting in late 1999, only seven out of the 18 members showed up, not enough for a quorum. So the committee’s first vote — authorizing the center’s conceptual design — was conducted as many later votes have been: informally, after each member has been briefed individually.
As far back as 2003, LaHood, a former Congressional staffer himself, said, “I think there’s a pretty huge disconnect between our committee and those leadership” staffers who have carried “this thing from the beginning.”
On Friday, LaHood again raised those same concerns.
“The principals [on the CPC] never show up and they never have,” he said. “Staff has micromanaged this project from the beginning to its detriment. … If they are going to have this commission, the Members need to show up.”
Friday’s hearing also gave some insight into issues other legislative branch agencies are having in relation to the visitor center project.
Wasserman Schultz noted that in her meetings with the Office of Compliance, concerns have been raised that the AOC staff has not allowed the agency “enough access to do their jobs effectively.”
When the CVC is finally opened, the OOC will be responsible for enforcing Occupational Health and Safety Act provisions throughout the facility as required by the Congressional Accountability Act. But prior to the CVC’s opening, the OOC has been attempting to conduct inspections to catch problems now, when they can be fixed at less cost and inconvenience.
Meanwhile, Wamp raised concerns Friday over the name of what until now has been referred to the CVC’s Great Hall. The 20,000-square-foot open space is the focal point of the CVC, but Wamp said he believes that calling the area the Great Hall diminishes the space that goes by the same name in the LOC’s Thomas Jefferson Building.
“The Library’s traditions proceed the CVC,” said Wamp, who said he has discussed the matter with Librarian of Congress James Billington. He asked Ayers to present the subcommittee with other options for naming the CVC space and said that another name can be found “that speaks to the grandness of the new space.”
After Friday’s session Wamp said that the first of what is expected to be many more hearings by the recently reformed subcommittee served “as a good way to re-establish ourselves” in the area of CVC oversight.
“I think the new committee is young and energetic and forceful on both sides of the aisle,” he said. “I think we are going to be aggressive. But we have many, many challenges to face.”