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Panels Plan to Cut AOC Request

The Architect of the Capitol’s office has requested $481.7 million for fiscal 2008, but last week’s hearings on the agency’s bid made clear that number is going to be pared down.

Noting that the AOC is asking for about a 19 percent increase over current funding levels, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch, said at Thursday’s hearing that such a request is simply “not attainable. … We’ve got to make sure we can really hone in on the critical mission priorities.”

But when it comes to prioritizing AOC projects, Wasserman Schultz and her House colleagues questioned the complex mathematical formula that the agency uses to evaluate projects based on comparisons of fire and life-safety issues, historic preservation needs, urgency and other considerations.

For example, she questioned the AOC’s request for some $15 million to fund new project design studies when three fire alarm replacement projects, one sprinkler replacement project and another project to install firefighter telephones in a Library of Congress building all did not rank high enough to request funding in the next fiscal year.

In his testimony, acting Architect Stephen Ayers noted that “we have developed this budget through a deliberate planning process. We reviewed many operating and capital project requests and made some difficult choices in our effort to be good stewards of the Capitol complex and to practice fiscal responsibility.”

But Wasserman Schultz asked, “Are funding for studies and designs more important than life-safety projects?”

The Capitol Visitor Center, repair efforts in the underground utility tunnel system and ongoing costs for the Capitol Power Plant were three projects that drew heavy questioning at both the House hearing on Thursday and the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch hearing on Friday.

For fiscal 2008, the AOC is requesting an additional $20 million for work at the CVC (a project that already is pushing $550 million), $24.8 million for utility tunnel repairs and improvements (Congress granted the AOC $27.6 million in emergency funding for the tunnels last year) and $111.2 million for “necessary maintenance, care and operation” of the power plant.

Wasserman Schultz said she was skeptical of Ayers’ assessment that the AOC would not need to return to the subcommittee later this year to ask for additional funds for the already behind-schedule CVC. To keep that from happening, she not only promised that the panel would hold a hearing each month on the CVC until it is completed but also asked that the AOC regularly submit a written report detailing the specific issues that may be affecting the project’s schedule and cost.

Those reports are expected “each week in the current week, about the current week, so that we can get serious about turning this project around,” Wasserman Schultz said.

During the Senate hearing, Chairwoman Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said that as a resident of Capitol Hill she is especially interested in the work taking place at the power plant.

“I understand that there’s several organizations on the Hill concerned about the environmental impact and aesthetics of the” power plant, Landrieu said. “I think sometimes it’s overlooked that the Capitol complex has major impacts on the neighborhoods in the area. … I’d really urge you all to be as sensitive as you can be to these groups because we want to be good neighbors.”

Health and safety issues in the Capitol’s utility tunnel system was a key theme of both hearings even as tunnel crew members announced last week that they will soon file a federal lawsuit against the Architect of the Capitol’s office because high asbestos levels continue to plague the tunnels.

Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) demanded to know how the asbestos problems were allowed to develop, noting that across America “asbestos abatement has been a high priority for many years. … How could this have occurred at the United States Capitol?”

LaHood demanded former Architect Alan Hantman, who ran the agency from 1997 to 2007, appear before the subcommittee to explain how conditions could have gotten so bad during his term.

Wasserman Schultz said Hantman would appear before the committee, even if she had to subpoena him to do so.

Meanwhile, Landrieu said she would consider asking the Government Accountability Office to begin to monitor the AOC’s ongoing tunnel repair work in the same way the agency already is monitoring progress at the CVC.

“The tunnels, the CVC and the power plant have all been plagued with delays,” ranking member Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) said at the Senate hearing. “We’ve got some challenges in our own backyard that we have to deal with.”

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