Crack! Crumble. Capitol needs fixing

In December 1863, at the end of the bloodiest year the nation had ever seen, a different kind of struggle was ending in the nation’s capital. There, despite the grim march of war just miles away and the temptation to put every available resource into the war effort, the Statue of Freedom was hoisted atop the 8 million-pound cast-iron Capitol dome. It is said that President Lincoln drew inspiration from watching the dome rise, seeing in it a metaphor for a union that would not perish from the earth.

For a century and a half, the Capitol and its dome have served as a symbol of American democracy around the world, one of the most instantly recognizable structures on the planet, and as a stately backdrop to inaugurations, celebrations and state funerals. In a 2007 survey by the American Institute of Architects, the public ranked it as their sixth favorite piece of architecture in America.

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Yet the dome is showing its age; cracks and leaks have formed, risking not only the beauty and integrity of the structure, but the safety and well-being of the thousands of people who work in and visit the Capitol every day. These problems will not go away by themselves. As Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers testified before the House Appropriations Committee last February, “The longer Capitol renewal projects are delayed, the conditions in these facilities will continue to deteriorate; deficiencies will grow more and more serious, and ultimately more costly to repair.”

That is why the House’s recent approval of a legislative branch appropriations bill that blocks funding for dome repairs is so troubling. 

Nobody disputes that trillion-dollar deficits force tough choices on spending. But as any homeowner can attest, delaying needed repairs doesn’t save money. In fact, it will cost taxpayers far more if we postpone repair work on the dome. How much? Some studies suggest that deferring maintenance will end up costing 15 times as much down the road. 

Unfortunately, this trend is repeating itself across the federal government and in state capitals, where legislatures that oversee public-facility funding are choosing to put off desperately needed repair work on their buildings in the name of budget savings. It is a penny-wise, pound-foolish approach that will place an even larger hole in our pocketbooks when those repairs cannot be put off any longer.

Furthermore, repair work creates jobs, and for a design and construction industry that lost another 28,000 jobs in May, any work is welcome. According to some estimates, every $1 million invested in design and construction yields as many as 28.5 full-time, well-paying jobs. 

It is perhaps understandable that Congress wants to avoid the perception that it is lavishing money on its own workspace. But the Capitol belongs to all of us. It is the iron-and-stone representation of our democracy. Congressional lawmakers do not own the dome — they are its steward, and they need to take good care of it. 

Just as Abraham Lincoln drew inspiration from the dome during the darkest days of the Civil War, so do millions of people around the world see the dome as a beacon of democracy. Allowing it to fall into further disrepair would speak volumes about the United States’s misplaced values and priorities. Congress cannot allow that to happen.

Potter is president of the American Institute of Architects. McCullough is a noted author and historian.