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OOC Asks for Extra Money to Hire Tunnel Experts

The Office of Compliance asked House appropriators today for new funding to hire outside experts to oversee the cleanup and repair of the hazardous utility tunnels beneath the Capitol complex.

Testifying at a House Appropriations legislative branch subcommittee hearing Thursday morning, acting OOC Executive Director Tamara Chrisler said her office does not have the necessary resources to properly monitor the problem-ridden tunnels. Hazards in the tunnels, which range from falling concrete to asbestos to the lack of emergency exits, require specific expertise, she added.

“We don’t want anything to fall through the cracks,” Chrisler said.

The OOC filed its first-ever formal complaint against the Architect of the Capitol in February 2006 after a variety of safety and health violations were found in the tunnels. The two offices now are wrapping up a settlement that will include regular OOC monitoring of the tunnels, a process that is expected to take five years, said Peter Eveleth, general counsel for the OOC.

Specifically, the OOC is asking for $120,000 in funds to cover the costs of an OOC safety and health expert who will work as a liaison to the AOC on tunnel issues. An additional $152,000 is requested so the office can bring in expert consultants on specific issues, Chrisler said.

In total, the OOC is requesting $4.1 million for fiscal 2008 operations, a 32 percent increase over 2007 numbers. About 28 percent of that increase is attributed to tunnel matters, Chrisler testified.

Subcommittee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) told Chrisler that while abatement of the tunnels is a priority, she wants to make sure that the extra money accomplishes its goals.

“I don’t want to be the one who says to my colleagues, we need this money … and the work doesn’t get done,” she added.

Approximately $27 million already has been appropriated to the AOC for tunnel issues, with $50 million more expected, Wasserman Schultz said.

Aside from the tunnels, the OOC also is focusing on its attention on a new strategic plan in order to better monitor the Capitol complex, Chrisler said.

While the tunnels have been a major focus of the OOC during the past year, there were more than 13,000 serious violations found in Congressional space during the 109th Congress that must be followed up, Eveleth said.

And one new area the office will take on in the next year is the Capitol Visitor Center.

The OOC will begin to regularly monitor the new complex once Congressional staff moves in, Eveleth said. As of now, the OOC has gone into the complex for a tour but has not been able to fully inspect the center because construction continues, he added.

Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) asked Chrisler specifically about how the OOC coordinates with district offices that are not as easily accessible to OOC staff.

The OOC sends regular mailings to district employees at their homes, Chrisler said, but cannot easily e-mail workers because the office does not have access to the Congressional Intranet. Wasserman Schultz responded that getting the OOC access to the Intranet system would be a priority — especially since the process wouldn’t cost anything.

“I just absolutely think we have to fix that,” she said.

The OOC also is in the midst of undertaking a baseline survey on disability access in the Capitol complex, Eveleth said. The subcommittee likely will hold a hearing on the matter in coming months, Wasserman Schultz said.

“There’s probably a couple of issues we can go through with you that could be really helpful,” she added.

Also testifying before the panel today were representatives from the Congressional Budget Office.

Director Peter Orszag testified that the bulk of the agency’s $38 million request for fiscal 2008 will go to the retainment and recruitment of staff.

“Our ability to continue to recruit people is under some strain,” Orszag said, adding that many CBO staffers leave the agency for higher-paying jobs in the private sector.

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