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Congress could fire Capitol architect under bipartisan bill

The proposal follows President Joe Biden’s removal of former Capitol Architect J. Brett Blanton

Former Architect of the Capitol J. Brett Blanton
Former Architect of the Capitol J. Brett Blanton (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A bipartisan, bicameral group of lawmakers is seeking to give Congress the power to appoint or remove an architect of the Capitol, rather than leaving it in the hands of the president.

The proposal comes in the wake of President Joe Biden’s removal in February of former Capitol Architect J. Brett Blanton, who was dogged for months by allegations of unethical behavior and misuse of his government-issued vehicle. 

Senate Rules Committee Chair Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and ranking member Deb Fischer, R-Neb., along with House Administration Chairman Bryan Steil, R-Wis., and ranking member Joseph D. Morelle, D-N.Y., announced Wednesday they introduced a bill that would establish a congressional commission for the appointment or removal of an architect of the Capitol.

“The Architect of the Capitol (AOC) is directly responsible for the management of the Capitol Complex, yet Congress has lacked the tools to hold the position accountable and improve the agency’s processes,” Fischer said Wednesday in a statement. “Our bipartisan legislation would reform the AOC, bringing much needed oversight that will boost transparency and improve service.”

Existing congressional statutes do not provide any terms for removal, Kevin Mulshine, a former inspector general at the Architect of the Capitol office, told CQ Roll Call before Blanton was ultimately fired.

The Senate Rules and House Administration committees have oversight of the architect’s office. But the absence of terms for removal led to questions about what role Congress should play when a presidential appointee abuses the office.

Klobuchar and former Senate Rules ranking member Roy Blunt, the Missouri Republican who retired earlier this year, introduced legislation in the waning days of the 117th Congress that would’ve established procedures for removing an architect. 

That bill would have codified Congress’ right to remove an architect either by impeachment or by joint resolution for “permanent disability, inefficiency, neglect of duty, malfeasance or a felony or conduct involving moral turpitude.”

It did not advance out of committee.

The latest measure goes a step further by establishing a commission with authority to appoint an architect of the Capitol by majority vote. It would be composed of the Senate majority and minority leaders, the House speaker and minority leader, and the chairs and ranking members of the Senate Rules and Appropriations committees, and the House Administration and Appropriations committees.

That commission would also have the authority to remove the architect by majority vote at any point, according to the text of the bill.

“In light of recent events, it is clear the process for selecting an individual for such a critical position was in need of reform,” Morelle said in a statement.

Blanton, who was appointed to a 10-year term in 2019 by then-President Donald Trump, came under fire in February when he was called to testify before the House Administration Committee

It was Blanton’s first appearance before a congressional panel since the release of a damning October inspector general report that found he had misrepresented himself as a law enforcement officer, repeatedly misused his government-issued vehicle and led, along with his wife, prohibited private Capitol tours during COVID-19 lockdown.

Blanton claimed the report was full of falsehoods, but he faced a barrage of questions from House Administration members. He drew their ire after admitting that he failed to respond in person to the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. 

Blanton, who in his role was responsible for the maintenance, care and security of the Capitol complex, said he didn’t think he’d be able to access the building on the day that Trump supporters breached the Capitol. Blanton said he instead set up a “mobile command center” in the government-issued vehicle he was accused of misusing. 

“But you didn’t come — because you said you couldn’t get on the campus, which I find offensive, sir,” Rep. Stephanie Bice, R-Okla., said to Blanton at the hearing. “The fact that you would say, ‘I wasn’t going to be able to get in’ — I cannot fathom that.” Biden eventually fired Blanton on Feb. 13.

The hearing “brought to light the importance of the position and the need to modernize the appointment process,” Steil said in a statement. “This bill will give Congress sole responsibility in selecting new leadership and, when necessary, the authority to hold bad actors accountable.”

Klobuchar urged patience after Blanton’s firing in February as Congress began the process of finding a new architect, which has sometimes taken more than a year.

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, the role had been open for 391 days, according to a 2021 Congressional Research Service report.

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

The new proposal would “update the appointment process for the Architect and ensure they are accountable to Congress,” Klobuchar said in the statement.

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