After 3 Years, Still No Permanent AOC

Posted February 3, 2010 at 6:19pm

When Alan Hantman retired as Architect of the Capitol three years ago, he didn’t leave early or resign unexpectedly. His 10-year term was up, and he gave Congress due warning that he wouldn’t be reapplying for a second tenure.

But Hantman’s seat remains empty, and the White House seems no closer to nominating a permanent replacement than it was the day after Hantman left. In the meantime, acting Architect Stephen Ayers has taken on all of the responsibilities without any of the authority that comes from confirmation.

“He’s doing a fantastic job,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who oversees the AOC as chairwoman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch. But “without permanence, you have an Architect who doesn’t know how long he’ll be a steward over the Capitol and [Congressional] buildings.”

It’s unclear when, if ever, Ayers will get that job security. More than two years ago, Congress recommended three candidates to the White House. One soon withdrew his name. That left only two choices, rumored to be Ayers and Don Orndoff, the director of construction and facilities management at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The process seems to have stalled there. Now Wasserman Schultz and a group of bipartisan Members are hoping to scrap the current selection process and hand over sole appointment authority to Congress.

On Wednesday, the Architect of the Capitol Appointment Act passed the House by voice vote. It would eliminate the White House from the appointment process, delegating the selection of the Architect to a bipartisan and bicameral group of Members, including House and Senate leadership and the chairmen and ranking members of the committees with the relevant oversight.

Whether the bill will pass the Senate is unclear. In 2008, Senators were lukewarm to the idea, since the chamber currently confirms the president’s nominee and thus maintains some control over the selection. On Wednesday, a spokesman for Sen. Charles Schumer, who heads the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, did not return requests for comment.

But supporters of the bill argue that the executive branch should not have control over the head of an agency that primarily serves the legislative branch (and, to a small extent, the Supreme Court). Furthermore, in the past, the White House has deferred to Congress’ recommendation, making the president’s nomination an unnecessary step.

In a floor statement Wednesday, Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) cited the AOC’s oversight of the new Capitol Visitor Center as further proof of the agency’s “role in support of the legislature and its operations.”

“Accordingly, it is appropriate that the process by which the Architect is appointed is a bipartisan, bicameral process, free of influence from the Executive Branch,” said Lungren, ranking member of the House Administration Committee. “The appointment process will be better aligned with the mission of the office, by emphasizing the relationship between the Architect and the ongoing legislative operations of the federal government.”

Indeed, the agency’s responsibilities have grown during the three years that Ayers has been at the helm. When he took over, the AOC was the subject of constant criticism for its handling of the construction of the CVC, which was over budget and behind schedule. Since the CVC opened under his watch, criticism has cooled — but the agency is now responsible for operating the largest-ever addition to the Capitol.

In the past couple of years, the AOC has begun several greening initiatives, partnering with private companies for millions of dollars of renovations to House and Senate buildings. Last year, Ayers also pushed Congress to spend almost $800 million for long-delayed maintenance on the Cannon House Office Building.

But Rep. Robert Aderholt, ranking member of the legislative branch subpanel, said the lack of a permanent AOC has slowed “progress and maintenance projects.”

“Having a permanent appointment is important to provide consistency in leadership,” he said in an e-mail. “If the AOC recommends a significant project, it would be good to have that person see the project through from beginning to end.”

Andrew Goldberg, senior director of federal relations for the American Institute of Architects, agreed that long-range planning was difficult without the certainty of a 10-year term. But he said Ayers has nevertheless made progress. Furthermore, he is a licensed architect — a qualification that the AIA has long lobbied Congress to require for the job.

“Ayers has not just kept the seat warm,” he said. “He has really gone and taken the job full force.”