Bipartisan legislation that would reshape how the architect of the Capitol is appointed or removed has made it into the final version of the National Defense Authorization Act and is poised to pass before Congress goes home for the holidays.
It would give Congress the sole power to hire or fire the architect, whose agency is responsible for the maintenance, operation and preservation of the Capitol complex.
“Given the importance [of the AOC] to Congress it just seemed as though the system needs to be designed to protect the interests of the people here — members, staff … and everyday Americans who come to the Capitol to visit,” said Democratic Rep. Joseph D. Morelle of New York.
The oversight measure is led in the Senate by Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar and Nebraska Republican Deb Fischer, and in the House by Wisconsin Republican Bryan Steil and Morelle.
The lawmakers — who head the two committees with jurisdiction over the Architect of the Capitol, Senate Rules and Administration and House Administration — coalesced around the measure after the firing of former Architect J. Brett Blanton. President Joe Biden removed Blanton in February, months after the publication of a damning inspector general report highlighting a litany of alleged ethical violations.
Dubbed the “Architect of the Capitol Appointment Act,” it would clarify the confusion that swirled in the wake of the report, as Congress questioned who had the authority to discipline the presidentially appointed architect.
The bill is included as a provision of the compromise National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2024. The Senate adopted the NDAA conference report on Wednesday night, and it now heads to the House.
It would create a congressional commission to appoint or remove an architect of the Capitol by majority vote, a move that Klobuchar and Steil both said could expedite the current hiring process. Steil deferred to Senate Rules when asked for an update on the search for a permanent architect to replace Blanton. Klobuchar’s office said the process was “ongoing.” Morelle said he expected a permanent architect to be named sometime in the new year.
Chere Rexroat, chief engineer at the agency, has been acting architect since Blanton’s ouster. Past efforts to find permanent architects have taken years or more. Before Donald Trump chose Blanton for the role in 2019 and the Senate confirmed him, it had been open for 391 days. The role went unfilled for 1,193 days after a 2007 vacancy and 436 days after a 1995 retirement, according to a Congressional Research Service report.
“The search committee has been engaged. I think there’s been a hope that we’re going to be able to get this through, and that’s going to allow us to accelerate that process,” Steil said.
Normally a low-profile office, the Architect of the Capitol came under the microscope after the publication of the report that precipitated Blanton’s ouster.
In it, the inspector general said Blanton had misrepresented himself as a law enforcement officer, misused a government-issued vehicle and allowed tours of the Capitol while the complex was closed to the public during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Office of Inspector General estimated his actions cost taxpayers in the ballpark of $14,000.
A group of Democratic lawmakers immediately called for his resignation. But because the AOC’s founding statute doesn’t provide terms for removal, Blanton stayed in his role for several more months until Biden intervened. The president did so only after an explosive House Administration hearing, at which frustrated committee members peppered Blanton with questions.
In May, lawmakers responded by introducing the bicameral bill. The congressional commission it would establish would consist of the Senate majority and minority leaders; House speaker and minority leader; and the chairs and ranking members of the Senate Rules, House Administration, and Senate and House Appropriations committees.
It would also require the architect to appoint a deputy architect within 120 days of a vacancy and authorize the committee to do so if the architect does not.
“The Architect of the Capitol oversees one of our country’s most cherished landmarks and the congressional workplaces housed within it,” Klobuchar said in a statement. “Given the far-reaching scope of the role, it’s essential for Congress to have the authority to appoint and remove the Architect through a bipartisan, majority vote. This legislation will strengthen congressional oversight of the office of the Architect of the Capitol and ensure it is accountable to Congress.”