Grumbles persist 2 years after CVC debut

Two years after its opening, lawmakers are still grumbling about pricey food and confusing hallways in the $621 million Capitol Visitor Center (CVC).

But despite the complaints, lawmakers mostly praised the CVC on Wednesday and noted that progress has been made on a number of key problems.

About 4.6 million visitors have come through the CVC doors since it opened in 2008, according to the office of the Architect of the Capitol (AoC), which oversees it.

In those 24 months, the 580,000-square-foot underground building has seen its fair share of controversy, including allegations of employee maltreatment, serious security breaches and the firing of its chief executive officer.

Members have recently complained that the food prices are too high in the CVC cafeteria and that they still get lost in the three floors of meeting rooms. Those concerns come after a year of grousing from members about not being able to have constituents take tours of the Capitol with their staff.

But lawmakers who oversee the CVC told The Hill this week they’re pleased overall with how those issues have been addressed and remain optimistic about moving forward as the newly formed CVC workers union continues to talk with management about fixing the outstanding problems.

“There’s definitely a lot of good that’s occurred and some things that still need improvement,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the chairwoman of the Appropriations Legislative Branch subcommittee.

“We’ve had some kinks that we’ve been able to iron out. I don’t hear the complaints that we did a year ago about the staff-led tours. We still have some employee working-condition issues that need to be addressed.”

Rep. Robert AderholtRobert Brown AderholtCBS series 'Madam Secretary' exploring 'fake news' plot Trump launches all-out assault on Mueller probe Republicans rally around Sessions after Trump criticism MORE (R-Ala.), the ranking member who could become the panel’s chairman in January, echoed her remarks, saying that “overall, members of Congress feel better about working with the CVC and the CVC is more open to listening to members’ concerns.”

But some members said there are still smaller kinks that need to be worked out. Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), who also serves on the Legislative Branch panel, said that the price of food in the CVC’s cafeteria is still too expensive.

“We’ve raised issues of why, when people bring their families in, is the food so expensive?” he said. “I think that’s wrong. It’s like when they charge you more for food on the train. They need to make some changes, like offer bologna sandwiches or a less expensive option.”

Food in the CVC is roughly the same price as food at museums throughout Washington, according to a CVC spokesman. The food is more expensive, however, than meals in the House office building cafeterias or the Capitol Carryout.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who also serves on the budget oversight subcommittee, said that he finds the center so geographically confusing that he avoids going to meetings there.

“It’s come a ways,” Cole said. “The signage has gotten better, but a lot of members find it to be a pretty forbidding place to go, and when I look at what I’m going to be doing in the evening, if there’s a reception in the CVC it falls to the bottom, because you can find your way to the other places.”

Late last year, the AoC formed a task force to analyze the signage in the CVC, according to Tom Fontana, the spokesman for the CVC. Officials placed multiple temporary signs and location maps throughout the building on all three levels, which Fontana said have proven to be so effective that they’ll be converted into permanent signs.

Lawmakers said that these are the fine-tuning adjustments that will be addressed as the CVC enters into its third year. More important, they said, are the issues of security, constituent relations and employee morale and treatment.

In July, the chief executive officer of the CVC, Terrie Rouse, was fired following a long series of complaints about a harsh management style.

“I think some of the improvement with employee working conditions is partly a result of the fact that she’s no longer there,” said Wasserman Schultz. “There were management style issues for sure.”

Rouse’s firing came nearly two months after a CVC employee failed to notify U.S. Capitol Police about a bag of white powder labeled “anthrax” and instead flushed it down a public toilet.

After a series of articles published in The Hill in which CVC employees reported several instances of being cut off from communication with their superiors during urgent situations on tours with visitors, CVC staffers were issued pagers in October.

The accumulation of events and problems spurred CVC employees in September to organize with the largest public-workers union in the country, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). The newly organized body has given lawmakers hope that the allegations of worker mistreatment will be resolved.

Already, winterized uniforms for CVC employees have been ordered and are expected to be delivered any day, officials said. Previously, employees were frequently posted in outside areas without weather-appropriate attire.