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Finalists for AOC’s Top Job Delivered to President Bush

Correction Appended

The search for the next Architect of the Capitol is in the hands of the White House after a commission of Congressional leaders forwarded the names of three finalists to President Bush just before Congress left town for the August recess.

The names of the three individuals are not being released by either end of Pennsylvania Avenue. But if the process is handled the same way it was the last time there was a vacancy in the post, one of the three candidates will have been designated the top choice of the bipartisan, bicameral commission that came up with the list of potential AOCs. After Bush selects his nominee for the job, the process will head back to Capitol Hill, where the Senate Rules and Administration Committee will hold a confirmation hearing.

The next Architect will be only the second to be selected under a 1989 statute that not only established a 10-year term for the post but also laid out the search-and-nomination procedure that is now under way.

Unlike the 1996 selection process, this time around those involved in the process are playing their cards much closer to the vest.

That September, when Congress sent a list of three potential AOCs to President Bill Clinton, several commission members spoke openly about their support for their top choice, Alan Hantman, who went on to run the agency until his term ended in February.

But not this year.

Just like any other presidential nomination, “it’s a confidential process,” Rules Staff Director Howard Gantman said last week. “One does not traditionally put people out there who are in the running for a job. … People have current jobs and maybe they don’t want to have a lot of publicity about the fact that they’d be interested in this job.”

Even the private groups that the Rules Committee reached out to earlier this year for suggestions on potential candidates have not been informed as to who has been selected as the finalists.

The shift is not surprising because, despite early praise, by the time Hantman left the agency, he had earned the ire of several prominent Members for continued delays and cost increases at the Capitol Visitor Center project and health and safety problems in the Capitol’s utility tunnel system.

Late last spring, then-House Appropriations ranking member David Obey (D-Wis.) said a “radical solution” was needed to correct management problems at the AOC and offered an amendment to the legislative branch appropriations bill that sought to turn control of the agency over to the Government Accountability Office until Hantman’s term expired at the end of January. The amendment was included in the House version of the spending bill but was not part of the eventual continuing resolution that was later adopted.

It was with those concerns in mind, Gantman has previously said, that the committee made strong facilities management a top priority in the search for the next AOC.

“A major criterion in selecting candidates must be extensive managerial experience and the ability to come in and turn the organization around,” Gantman said earlier this year.

But some private groups watching the nomination process, including the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the American Institute of Architects, are concerned that such a focus could lead to someone other than a licensed architect being chosen to serve.

In a letter to Rules Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in June, Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, wrote, “only a licensed architect can be entrusted to care for this prized national treasure and to command the respect and confidence necessary to lead the office in creating the vision and making the critical decisions affecting thousands of people’s lives daily.”

As in 1996, the Rules Committee asked the 150-year-old AIA to submit a list of potential candidates. But, “as far as we know, none of the four original candidates we submitted are part of the final three,” an AIA spokesman said.

Gantman said the AIA has been consulted “throughout this process and we were disappointed that they didn’t come forward with more nominees of well-known and highly qualified architects who had the kind of experience and background that [would have put them] in the top running for this position.”

“Every time we’ve met with them they’ve said they are open to discussions with the AIA and to the AIA submitting more candidates, but their actions did not reflect their words at times,” AIA Vice President of Government and Community Relations Paul Mendelsohn said. “The more they are becoming closed in their communication to us the more concerned we become about [the three finalists] being non-architects.”

Mendelsohn added that the AIA is concerned this time around that the process hasn’t been as transparent as it should be.

“You are talking about an important position that has huge ramifications to public safety, to historic preservation, to the security needs of the people who work and visit Capitol Hill,” he said. “Because of that, I think this decision has too much value and potential to be made in a vacuum.”

Correction: Aug. 20, 2007

The article misstated which group forwarded the names of the AOC finalists to Bush. It is a bipartisan, bicameral commission of Congressional leaders who submitted the list.

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