'Lost' on Capitol Hill: Lawmakers and tourists get lost in the CVC

It may not be a tropical desert island, but plenty of people, including members of Congress, are getting 'lost' in the Capitol Visitor Center (CVC).

The 580,000-square-foot underground visitors center opened more than a year ago and has drawn a steady stream of praise from most lawmakers, with one glaring exception: They nearly always get lost trying to navigate its many halls among three floors.

“I probably use the CVC more than any other member, or as much as any other member, and I still get lost,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) in an interview with The Hill. This, despite large paper signs that were pasted on its walls after members voiced initial complaints.. “The signs are just a little bit better," said Wasserman Schultz, "but they’re not consistent.”

The Florida Democrat and her fellow members of the Appropriations Committee’s Legislative Branch sub-panel sounded off at a hearing on Wednesday with acting Architect of the Capitol (AoC) Stephen Ayers. Each related tales of losing their way in the mammoth marble underground addition to the Capitol.

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) said she was trying to find her way out of the CVC recently and came to a series of doors that led outside. But the doors were labeled with a sign saying an alarm would sound if they were opened. A group of nearby tourists was also dumbfounded by how to get out.

“I watched this group of people — 20 people — totally paralyzed and I said [to them], ‘This really is the exit,’ ” she recalled. “They said, ‘No, no, alarms are going to go off.’

“So I said, ‘I’ll set them off,’ ” McCollum told Ayers, adding, “We need to do something about that now.”

As chairwoman of the subcommittee, Wasserman Schultz said she hears complaints from fellow members at least once a week and that it strikes her as not only an inconvenience but also a security hazard.

“I’m kind of the central clearinghouse for [member] complaints, as you might imagine," she told The Hill. "When it comes to concerns that members have … [T]he CVC is the one that’s the most popular."

“Of course it is [a safety concern],” she said. “I have confidence that staff and police would know how to guide everyone in an evacuation, but it’s always helpful if you know yourself. You can go quicker if you can guide yourself or can guide others.”

The AoC placed the signs several months ago, and Ayers told the panel that the purpose of the paper signs was to get feedback about their efficacy, which up until Wednesday’s hearing he said had been positive.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said he has memorized the path that leads to the Republican Conference meetings in the CVC but, "Boy, if I get off that path, I’m in big trouble. I stumble around that place for 20 or 30 minutes sometimes, not able to find where I’m going. I’m not blaming anybody, I just have to get a better feel for that space and I may need some help in doing it.”

Wasserman Schultz said that a member orientation probably wouldn’t have any effect, but she suggested that Ayers create a three-dimensional map that depicts how the floors are layered and oriented.