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Legislative Branch Might Meet on Workers

House appropriators may meet behind closed doors to discuss the plight of the 10 tunnel workers who blew the whistle on asbestos exposure in the Capitol, if Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) gets her way.

McCollum has met on and off with the workers since they raised concerns two years ago about the condition of the Capitol’s underground utility tunnels. Most have scarring in their lungs and are still pursuing compensation for their medical expenses.

Eight no longer work for the Architect of the Capitol, and thus they have mostly faded into history. But on Tuesday, McCollum expressed concern that their situation might not be resolved.

“I want to know for myself whether or not in my mind things were handled in the most expedient way and to the highest moral standard,— she said at a hearing of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch.

In 2007, the workers got a settlement from the AOC, but only for the harassment they suffered after they sounded the alarm. The amount they received is confidential, though such awards are usually far less than those for personal injury.

Since the workers left, the AOC has entered into an agreement with the Office of Compliance to fix the falling concrete, failing communications systems and asbestos exposure in the tunnels. The two miles of winding utility tunnels provide heating and cooling to the Capitol complex.

At Tuesday’s hearing, OOC Executive Director Tamara Chrisler said that the abatement process is ahead of schedule and under budget. After asking for more than $120 million for the effort last year, the AOC later decided it needed only $56 million.

“Their progress is steady,— Chrisler told Members. “We’re expecting that to continue.—

McCollum said she wants to discuss the settlement and whether it should be changed in light of anything the AOC has found while fixing the tunnels. A closed meeting, she said, would allow both sides to openly talk about the situation.

Subcommittee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) declined to promise a closed hearing on the tunnel workers, but in the past, she has called the asbestos situation “unconscionable.—

Tuesday’s hearing also covered the budget requests of the OOC, Government Accountability Office and Government Printing Office. Members seemed pleased with the low requests.

The GAO asked for about $567 million — a 6.9 percent increase over the current fiscal year’s funding. But the agency is in the middle of a flurry of work, handling oversight of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and the 2010 Census.

Wasserman Schultz called the request “reasonable,— and Members spent most of the hearing asking about the GAO’s work rather than its specific funding requests.

But the GAO stills struggles to keep up with an increasing workload and is asking Congress to fund more than 100 new employees in fiscal 2010. Starting a report takes an average of five months, and GAO officials have to work with committees to prioritize what work to do first.

Wasserman Schultz suggested each report include its cost to give committee chairmen some perspective.

“I get the sense that most committees view the GAO as an endless pit,— she said.

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