AoC criticized for 2007 spending request

House appropriators lambasted the office of the Architect of the Capitol (AoC) yesterday for requesting an “irresponsible” amount of money for 2007 spending on the Capitol Visitor Center (CVC) and for its management of several other projects under their jurisdiction.

During his opening remarks in the Appropriations Committee hearing examining the budgets for the House of Representatives, the Office of Compliance and the AoC, ranking member Rep. Dave Obey (D-Wis.) initially made light of the budgetary constraints facing legislative-branch agencies.

“If anyone thinks we can provide a 12 percent increase, they are smoking something that ain’t legal,” he quipped.

However, criticisms of the AoC, headed by Alan Hantman, quickly turned serious as Obey, flanked by Reps. Jim Moran (D-Va.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) asked why the architect’s office needs $588.3 million for fiscal year 2007, a 33.5 percent increase over the current year’s budget.

“We did not prepare this budget in a vacuum,” Hantman testified to the committee, defending the budget request as necessary for the agency’s role as “responsible stewards” of the Capitol.

“The Capitol complex is, in reality, like a small city. … It is a small city with an aging infrastructure,” he said.

Obey wasted no time criticizing Hantman for the ever-escalating cost of the CVC and recited a list of target opening dates the architect had previously provided.

“I’ve long since given up expecting this project to produce a rational result,” Obey said. “I think this is a sad, sad mistake because if people can focus on working space rather than show space we could have had a much better use of the taxpayers’ money.”

In 2000, the 580,000-square-foot facility was estimated to cost $265 million, but since then the project has expanded in scope and size, causing the costs to rise. In February 2006 the Government Accountability Office estimated that the facility would cost between $555 million and $585 million. The AoC has requested $20.6 million for 2007 to complete the project and has set the total price tag at around $550 million.

“I will never vote for a legislative bill that has one dime more for this operation, and I regret to say that because I have an obligation to the legislative institution,” Obey said. “I’m just not going to identify myself in any way with the mistakes associated with this boondoggle.”

Obey complained that Congress is receiving little additional office space or hearing rooms, adding that those concerns were not necessarily the architect’s fault.

“With respect to design mistakes, at least as I find them, we are getting a hell of a lot of show and not a lot of usable working space,” he said. “[This is] the fault of the leadership and the fault of the leadership staff who quarterbacked this turkey. … It will be a nice addition to the Capitol, but for half a billion bucks it could have been so much more.”

During his testimony, Hantman cited an article published in a newsletter of the American Institute of Architects that stated: “The Congress and the congressional leadership provided an exceptional and focused vision for this project.”

Obey challenged him on the statement, saying the vision was poor and unfocused.

“Last year, Mr. Hantman, I bet you a quarter that this thing would not be open by Labor Day. You wanna take that bet?” he said.

“Who’s going to hold the money, Mr. Obey?” Hantman replied.

After rephrasing the question and inquiring several times whether the facility would be 100 percent complete by Labor Day 2007, Hantman deferred the query to CVC Project Manager Bob Hixon, who eventually said the facility would be open by that date.

Kirk described the AoC budget request as irresponsible and directed his line of questioning to the Alternate Computer Facility, which the architect’s office manages. The agency has requested $5 million to purchase land around the Virginia facility and $5.35 million for onsite vehicle storage. The facility contains the backup systems of most congressional computer functions in the event of an emergency.

“Why do we have to be in the storage business?” he asked Hantman, suggesting that the office contract out the backup systems to a private digital-storage company.

After Kirk repeatedly pressed Hantman, he replied: “I’m not an IT specialist; I’m a simple architect.”

Moran again criticized the Capitol Power Plant and proposed that the committee take steps to explore privatizing the facility.

“It has not generated one watt of power since the ’50s,” he said, expressing frustration that a study to privatize the plant was still on hold, awaiting the completion of the West Refrigeration Plant.

Moran also scolded Hantman for requesting $8.3 million to upgrade the kitchen exhaust system in the Longworth Building, contending the amount should have been requested last year when the facility was renovated.

Hantman replied that the renovation had been purely aesthetic and that the kitchen area had not been included in the upgrade.

The panel briefly grilled Chief Administrative Officer Jay Eagan and officials who draw up the House of Representatives budget, inquiring about the disparities among House and Senate staff salaries and the private sector. Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) and Obey expressed concern about the retention of House employees who may choose to go to the Senate or private sector in order to increase their salaries.

Eagan agreed to explore the concern further and to report what he finds to the committee.

The budget request of the House of Representatives totaled $1.1 billion for 2007. The Office of Compliance budget request of $3.4 million was also briefly reviewed.

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