Since the Capitol Visitor Center opened nine months ago, officials have often touted its benefits — from shortening tour lines to providing visitors with amenities such as bathrooms and food.
But not much has been said about the expanded space available for the House and Senate, which accounts for about 30 percent of the $621 million underground building. The area — totaling 170,000 square feet — surrounds the CVC’s main hall, providing dozens of rooms for meetings, receptions, hearings and storage.
Just how widely used is it? That’s unclear, since neither the House nor the Senate appear to keep track of who uses the meeting rooms or how many employees are assigned there. Officials also declined to provide a list of events and hearings held in the expanded space.
None of the space is for Member offices, which are notoriously cramped (especially in the House, where some are relegated to the fifth floor “attic— of the Cannon House Office Building). Instead, officials have largely used the area for support staff and a few extra meeting rooms.
A leadership aide said the space was never intended for offices, partly because the area has no windows and is well-suited for other purposes — such as the House and Senate recording studios.
But after years of criticism over the project’s price tag, Members also are afraid of appearing as though they are spending money on themselves. Originally slated to cost about $265 million, the CVC ended up more than doubling in price and opening four years late.
Now, instead of expanding offices and committee rooms, the space is home to a hodgepodge of staff and supplies.
Some rooms are filled with furniture, others with empty coat hangers. On the Senate side, Capitol Police officers roam in and out of their secure new facilities, which include lockers, offices and a break room. In the House, Members use a handful of rooms for conference hearings and meetings, while dozens hold supplies or various staff.
Only one committee will benefit from the expansion. The House Intelligence Committee has moved from its outdated rooms above the Rotunda to a suite of offices on the CVC’s third floor.
Committee spokeswoman Courtney Littig called it “vast oceans larger— than the previous office and a “tremendous improvement.— The committee now has two hearing rooms, a library, a conference room and offices for the chairman and ranking member.
Technology is also far advanced; security concerns meant the committee’s old Capitol office was only updated in fits and starts. A new vault also will contain some classified material, and each staffer will have a place to put classified documents so they have fast access to them.
“Without a doubt, it was going to be better than the Capitol, primarily because we have more than one bathroom,— Littig said. The office, she added, is also becoming more streamlined. “It just makes things run a bit more smoothly.—
But she said the staffers don’t use any of the CVC amenities, preferring, for example, the Capitol Market to the more expensive CVC cafeteria. In many ways, the committee is isolated in its new space; Littig said some visitors get lost on their first visit, while few tourists wander their way.
The House side of the CVC also only has three rooms for Members to use — one large hearing room and two small rooms. The Senate, on the other hand, offers 10, according to the Senate Rules and Administration Committee. The visitor portion of the CVC also has a few rooms, which have been used for staff meetings and receptions, and a 450-seat Congressional Auditorium that can serve as a House or Senate chamber.
It’s unclear how often Members use the rooms. Senate, House and CVC officials declined to provide details on how the rooms have been used since the CVC’s opening. But several committees have held hearings there throughout the year.
Michael Steel, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), said the Republican Conference has had weekly meetings in the CVC’s large conference room, rather than in the Capitol.
Boehner and other Members have also become acquainted with the new offices of the House Radio-TV Correspondents’ Gallery, which snagged a large portion of the House’s expansion space.
The space allows the gallery to produce high-definition video and provides far more room than the limited space in the Capitol. Director Olga Ramirez Kornacki said in an e-mail that the space has three studios that can simultaneously host multiple news conferences and exclusive interviews.
“We’re excited about this state-of-the-art HD facility that will allow us to better accommodate the entire House community,— she said.