By Kelly McCormack - 02/21/07 12:00 AM EST
In a heated Capitol Visitor Center (CVC) oversight hearing last week, Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Fla.), chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee's legislative branch panel, demanded that acting Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers answer a series of questions about the project's management by Feb. 26.
When panel members learned that the CVC completion date had been postponed until spring 2008 and its final price tag would exceed $600 million, they raised doubts regarding the handling of funds related to the project, as well as its overall organization.
By the end of the hearing, Wasserman Schultz flexed her oversight muscle and implored Ayers to answer several unresolved issues on the CVC project by Monday.
"This hearing makes one thing very clear to me - everyone involved in this project must be held to a higher standard of accountability, and on a regular basis. In that light, I ask you to provide the committee with the following [six] items by close of business on Monday, Feb. 26," Wasserman-Schultz told Ayers.
Specifically, she called on Ayers to list the CVC activities that need to be completed by the next hearing - scheduled for March 13 - for the project to stay on schedule.
A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report showed that only two of 21 benchmarks that were set for completion by the end of 2006 had been met by Jan. 25. Two other milestones since have been met. The report also showed that the project's completion date falls two weeks behind schedule each month.
Which led Wasserman Schultz to post another question: "When can this subcommittee expect revised appropriation estimates from you?
"You said today that the opening date for the CVC has slipped for a number of months. Now we're expecting it to open by the end of the summer 2008," the chairwoman continued. "If we are likely to have to move the opening date again, that is likely to affect the construction costs estimate [and] operations money you need. It's going to require us to have that information as we move through the budgetary process."
The GAO report also showed that the $20 million funding request made by the Architect of the Capitol (AoC) for fiscal year 2008 would be insufficient, and that the project could require another $15 million without taking into account unforeseen risks.
Wasserman Schultz also requested a "plan and a timeline" for the completion of the project's risk assessments, which estimate the effects of unpredictable setbacks, such as weather and security threats.
"According to your testimony, you are going to do another schedule risk assessment and incorporate additional risks," Wasserman Schultz said. "Provide me a with a plan and timeline, detailing when you will accomplish this schedule risk assessment."
The second-term lawmaker then prompted Ayers to explain the awards process that has been used to motivate contractors to complete segments of the project on time.
While the process has been updated to prohibit contractors from receiving award money if they miss deadlines, Wasserman Schultz said that it was "certainly not appropriate" that contractors who previously had missed deadlines had collected the awards.
She called for an accounting of how the money has been used, how much awards money is left and the current criteria that a contractor must meet to earn awards money.
The panel chairwoman requested Ayers's plan to meet the "Sequence Two" contact completion date, which, she said, "has long passed."
"There is still no agreement on the existing completion date," she said. "It's probably difficult to hold the contractor's feet to the fire if we don't know when he is telling you it's going to be done."
Overall price came into question when Wasserman Schultz petitioned Ayers to name reasons for the rising cost of the project.
"I think we all desire to know how we got from a $265 million project to a $600 million project."
Ranking member Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) agreed with the chairwoman's line of inquiry.
"That's a good start," Wamp said. But he also called on Ayers to outline possible names for the CVC's main hall, which now is being referred to as the Great Hall. He said that a different moniker should be considered because the Library of Congress already contains a Great Hall.
Other panel members were told to submit pending questions yesterday.
Wasserman Schultz said that the hearing raised more questions than it resolved.
"I knew I'd be more concerned at the end of the hearing than at the start of it," Wasserman Schultz told Ayers. "And I knew when I was given this assignment that we would have a lot of oversight to emphasize, and this hearing has made that clear."