Senate panel goes relatively easy on Ayers

Acting Architect of the Capitol Steven Ayers may have been relieved last week after giving his testimony before lawmakers on the Senate Appropriations Committee’s legislative branch panel — a body that, compared to its House counterpart, went easy on him.

In separate hearings for the Architect of the Capitol’s (AoC) 2008 budget request last week, the tone House and Senate appropriators took toward Ayers and members of his agency hardly could have been more different.

House legislative branch panel Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) ended her questioning Thursday by requiring that Ayers complete some “homework” related to the subcommittee’s line of questioning. She told him she would require that he complete a weekly report on problems with and budgetary implications of the Capitol Visitor Center (CVC).

“I’m not going to allow any more waste,” Wasserman Schultz said. “Not on my watch.”
By contrast, Senate panel Chairwoman Mary Landrieu (D-La.) began the subcommittee hearing by calling the CVC a “magnificent space” and extolling Ayers and his staff for “maintaining the Capitol complex.

“Your staff is true professionals and I really appreciate your help,” Landrieu said, thanking Ayers for giving her, her family and her staff a tour of the CVC.

At one point during the Senate hearing, ranking member Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) thanked CVC Project Manager Bob Hixon, who is retiring at the end of the month, for his commitment to the project. Landrieu interjected and told Hixon to “stand up and we’ll give you a round of applause.”

Landrieu and Allard, the two senators present at the hearing (there were a series of votes that morning), did question Ayers on the deterioration of tunnels, the Capitol power plant, heating and fire alarm systems in the CVC and other issues of concern for the Capitol. The tone of their line of questioning was nothing like that in the House, however.

Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) gave Ayers the third degree, bringing up the treatment of Capitol power plant workers who have been exposed to asbestos. LaHood said the AoC knew about the asbestos problem for seven years, yet failed to do anything about it.

“How can that happen?” LaHood said. “They are going to end up dying from exposure to asbestos. Somebody has to be held accountable for this. Who is responsible? I think it’s ridiculous. I want a better explanation. [Former Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman] cannot walk away with this on his watch.”

Wasserman Schultz told LaHood: “I assure you he will not. Asbestos exposure results in cancer and death. The callous disregard for human life … there’s just not strong enough language.” She said the panel will hold a separate hearing to investigate the health and safety of the tunnel workers.

She then grilled Ayers on his agency’s budgetary priorities for a second time.

“It’s hard for me to address how a storage facility could be higher on the list than security,” she said, inquiring why all the criteria were on an equal playing field. “That really concerns me,” Wasserman Schultz said.

Landrieu was far more understanding of the AoC’s prioritization process.

“I understand you have to prioritize and make those decisions,” Landrieu said.

Later in the Senate hearing, Allard told Ayers that he did a “good job” as chief operating officer for the AoC. “I wish you the best as acting architect.”

Before jumping into questioning about the deterioration of the tunnels and the continuation of CVC project delays, Allard told Ayers that he was “pleased to see your discussion about goals and milestones based on objective criteria.”

Referencing the rising cost of the CVC, which has been delayed and over budget, Wasserman Schultz questioned Ayers about his request for funds.

“How are you sure that you’re not going to have to come back for more [funding for the CVC]?” she asked.

House panel ranking member Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) prodded Ayers on the morale of the workers in his agency: “What do you think the morale is of the people who report to you?”
Wamp was also “still surprised” that Ayers hasn’t “spent more time in the CVC.”

In his last statement, Wamp likened the asbestos issue to Hurricane Katrina.

“The horror of Katrina shook the foundation of people’s confidence in their government,” Wamp said. “This asbestos issue today is another one of those issues.”

In the upper chamber, Landrieu ended the AoC budget hearing by praising Ayers because “women fill many senior positions [at the AoC].”

She concluded on an even lighter note:

“I’m told that in the Capitol Visitor Center laboratory space is doubled or tripled for women’s restrooms.” Nearly everyone in the hearing room laughed.