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Dome Repair Probably a Casualty of Spending Cuts

To see the impact the sustained budget debate is having on the agencies they fund, lawmakers need only look up.

Much-needed repair to the Capitol Dome will likely be put off until at least 2013 if Congress can’t come to an agreement on a new budget for fiscal 2011. Even if they extend a short-term continuing resolution that is set to expire March 4, the Dome could fall into further disrepair.

The cast-iron structure, widely seen as a symbol of democracy, has sustained nearly 150 years of weather damage. Fragmenting lead-based paint in the interior skirt and the exterior Rotunda wall is causing the iron to corrode and creating a health hazard for tour guides and visitors who climb to the top.

“It looks wonderful from afar,” said Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch. “You get up close, you’ll see things starting to chip away.”

The Architect of the Capitol is constantly administering repairs, but agencies are not allowed to start new projects under a CR. As a result, the AOC cannot assign a start date to the next phase of the project, which was originally planned to start this fiscal year and wrap up by January 2013.

“It’s prudent that they wait,” said subcommittee ranking member Mike Honda (D-Calif.). “It’s not helpful, it’s not efficient, but it’s prudent.”

As talk of a new short-term CR increases on the Hill, so do the chances that the Dome’s next project will not get started until after the next presidential inauguration.

In fact, if Congress fails to pass a budget this year but does pass a budget for fiscal 2012, the AOC would not be able to start the rehabilitation project, said Jean Bordewich, staff director for the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.

That’s because the next presidential inauguration will be held on the West Front in January 2013, and scaffolding would obscure the picturesque Dome.

But the situation is constantly worsening, according to the AOC’s fiscal 2011 budget request.

“Failure to correct, repair and restore the Dome will lead to accelerated degradation and increased corrosion to the cast iron skirt and masonry walls,” the request states.

In an effort to speed up the process in case Congress passes a budget, the AOC began soliciting construction bids online from companies in December. So far, more than 50 businesses have expressed interest in helping repair the Dome.

“If funds do not become available, the solicitation will be canceled,” Bordewich said. “A formal request to the Rules Committee for project approval has not been submitted yet, and such will take place once it is known that the funds have been appropriated.”

Companies are instructed to turn in their proposals by March 4, the same day the CR expires.

The $20 million project entails removing the failing paint from the interior of the Dome’s skirt and the Rotunda wall, repairing the cracks in the Dome and repainting it.

The flaking lead-based paint presents a hazard to visitors climbing the Dome’s interior because it collects along the tour route, according to the budget request. The plan also calls for clearing the paint chips.

Until that happens, Members, staff and international visitors are at risk, said Carl Goldman, executive director of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 26.

“We have tour guides who regularly lead tours up to the Dome. There are also tourists going up who are the constituents of Members of Congress,” he said. “If there is a problem with lead paint, it needs to be fixed.”

In the 1990s, Capitol workers repaired water leaks in the Dome and the Statue of Freedom, the 19-foot-tall statue that sits atop the Dome, was airlifted off for restoration.

The first phase of the most recent set of Dome repairs was completed in the early 2000s, when workers removed 80,000 pounds of paint from the interstitial space between the interior and exterior of the Dome, and the area was repainted.

The final phase is an ambitious project meant to repair cracked or missing pieces of the exterior Dome and repaint it, repair the gutter system and windows, and install fall-protection and bird deterrent systems.

Inside the Dome, workers would install new mechanical and electrical systems, ductwork and interior lighting; remove asbestos; repair the platforms and catwalks; and add a new fire alarm, among other projects.

This work was meant to start after the 2013 inauguration, but the longer the skirt repairs are pushed back, the longer it is before the final repairs can begin.

The AOC priced this final phase at nearly $4 million, but as noted in the fiscal 2011 budget request, the price will go up as the work is delayed.

“If this project is postponed, cast iron plates will continue to corrode,” the report states. “The total cost of the rehabilitation will increase due to the rapidly deteriorating conditions.”

The AOC oversees a roughly $600 million annual budget, and last year Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers requested $690 million to make repairs across the Capitol complex.

The spending bill passed by the House slices $28.7 million from the agency’s budget compared with last year.

AOC spokeswoman Eva Malecki declined to comment on the project or say whether other projects have been postponed, citing a policy not to talk about pending legislation.

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