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Congress looks for new architect of the Capitol as calls rise for oversight

Finding a new AOC can take a year or more

Lawmakers are starting the process to replace Architect of the Capitol J. Brett Blanton
Lawmakers are starting the process to replace Architect of the Capitol J. Brett Blanton (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Senate Rules and Administration Chairwoman Amy Klobuchar said the search for a new architect of the Capitol will start “immediately,” while urging patience, as the process to find a replacement can take a year or more.

The Minnesota Democrat will be part of a congressional panel tasked with making recommendations to the president to fill the now-vacant position after the White House on Monday removed J. Brett Blanton from the role.

“It’s going to take a while,” Klobuchar said Tuesday. “We have an acting AOC (interim Chere Rexroat) with a lot of experience. But it has to be a priority.”

The White House confirmed Blanton’s removal Monday, days after he appeared before the House Administration Committee and skirted questions about abuses of his office alleged in an internal watchdog report released in October. 

The agency’s inspector general found that Blanton misused his government-issued vehicle, gave unauthorized tours of the Capitol during COVID lockdown and misrepresented himself as a law enforcement officer.

Biden’s removal of Blanton was cheered by lawmakers from both parties and watchdogs alike. But it leaves a void at the little-known, but crucial, agency tasked with overseeing the maintenance, operation, development and preservation of the Capitol complex.

It took 436 days to fill the role after a retirement in 1995 and 1,193 days after a 2007 vacancy. Before the Senate confirmed Blanton, a Donald Trump pick in 2019, the role had been open for 391 days, according to a 2021 Congressional Research Service report.

“These things often take a long time because it’s nobody’s top priority,” said Daniel Schuman, policy director at Demand Progress.

A culture change

Questions around the physical security of the Capitol complex – for which the architect is partly responsible – in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack, as well as ongoing projects, like the over-budget and behind-schedule rehab of the Cannon office building, could spur quicker action, Schuman speculated. 

For one, House Administration Chairman Bryan Steil, R-Wis., who called the hearing that led to Blanton’s demise, said he’s looking forward to working with colleagues to find a new architect, but did not provide a timeline.

“As one of the largest legislative branch entities with over 2,400 employees who are experts in their trades, the AOC needs an experienced leader who is focused on modernizing the AOC to more efficiently undertake future Capitol Complex construction and renovation projects while increasing accountability to the American taxpayer,” Steil said in a statement.

“Further, incoming leadership must change the culture of the organization to be more customer service oriented toward members, staff, and American people who have the right to visit their representatives in a secure, impactful way,” he continued.

Since the 1990s, the process of finding a new architect has started with the 14-member congressional commission whose job it is to refer at least three candidates to the president for appointment.

Steil and Klobuchar, whose committees are tasked with oversight of the agency, will sit on the panel, along with their ranking members, Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., and Rep. Joseph D. Morelle, D-N.Y.

They’ll be joined by the speaker of the House, the president pro tempore of the Senate, the House and Senate majority and minority leaders, and the chair and ranking minority members of the House and Senate committees on Appropriations. 

In the meantime, the interim role of architect fell to Rexroat, the agency’s chief engineer. Rexroat is a licensed architect with more than 30 years of “design, construction and delivery experience,” according to the agency’s website.

The AOC’s deputy architect normally would have filled the vacancy, but there has been no deputy architect since Blanton took office. The agency’s Chief of Operations Joe DiPietro was next in the line of succession, Blanton said at the House Administration hearing. But a congressional aide said DiPietro deferred to Rexroat.

A call for oversight

Watchdogs are urging members of Congress to use Blanton’s removal as motivation to shore up oversight of the AOC and similar positions.

Until 1990, the president had unilateral authority to appoint an architect of the Capitol to an unlimited term without input from Congress, according to the CRS. That changed as part of the Legislative Branch Appropriations Act of 1990, which established a 10-year term limit for the AOC, required consent from the Senate and created the congressional search panel.

The bill codified the appointment process, but it omitted any mention of discipline or removal, unlike some other statutes governing legislative branch agencies.

“I think the reason why this statute sort of differs from other statutes, which provide a little bit more clarity on removal, is because nobody anticipated this being a problem,” said Donald Sherman, senior vice president and chief counsel at the advocacy group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “But this is what happens when a corrupt president appoints people and the Senate doesn’t push back.”

The comptroller general, who leads the Government Accountability Office, is similarly appointed by the president for a fixed, 15-year term with the consent of the Senate. But unlike the AOC, the statute governing the comptroller general explicitly allows for removal either by impeachment, or by a joint resolution of Congress in the event of “permanent disability; inefficiency; neglect of duty; malfeasance; or a felony or conduct involving moral turpitude.”

Klobuchar introduced legislation in late January that would borrow that language and apply it to the AOC to give Congress removal authority. Klobuchar said Tuesday that she would continue to pursue the legislation despite Blanton’s removal. It remains in committee.

The Klobuchar measure is a start, Schuman said. But he hopes Congress will consider more sweeping reforms that would bring more consistency to the oversight of legislative branch agencies.

“Congress needs to rethink a less cumbersome, more efficient, more practical oversight, appointment and removal system for all of these offices,” he said. “And they probably should centralize it and make it easier to respond when you have these types of problems.”

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