A Costly Welcome for Capitol Visitors

  • Share
  • Read Later
Joe Raedle / Getty

A worker lays stone during construction of the Capitol Visitor's Center.

When the Capitol Visitors Center finally opens, Congress will have an underground amusement park ready for its 4 million annual visitors. The 580,000 sq. ft. facility, located under the east lawn of Capitol Hill, will feature two "orientation" movie theaters, two gift shops, a museum, an auditorium, 26 public restrooms and the largest cafeteria in Washington. Lawmakers will use the facility to hold press conferences, luncheons, and even to vote when the House or Senate needs renovating. The floors will be made of Tennessee marble, the walls of Pennsylvania sandstone and several doors of pure bronze. The plaza above the center, paved with Virginia granite, will hold Presidential inaugurations and allow state funerals to proceed to the front of the Capitol rotunda.

In short, the Capitol Visitors Center (CVC) will be an impressive sight. And it better be, according to the project's many critics, who see its soaring costs and delayed completion as a symbol of Congress' gross ineptitude. The center's construction will cost at least $600 million and is at least three years behind schedule. It is now supposed to be finished by September 2008, but even that date will likely be pushed back. "This is a beautiful disaster," says Rep. Deborah Wasserman Schulz , a Florida Democrat and the chair of an ongoing House hearing on the center's progress. Quips Rep. Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican who also chaired the hearings until 2004, "We will have Iraq figured out before the center is finished."

Plans for the CVC actually predate the first Iraq war. In the 1980s, a group of lawmakers envisioned it as a modest structure to hold visitors waiting for tours of Capitol Hill. The project stalled during the '90s because of cost concerns, but Congress signed on to the project in 1998 after a lunatic gunman killed two Capitol police, according to Rep. John Mica, a Florida Republican and longtime CVC supporter. Construction began in 2000 with a budget of $265 million and a completion date of 2004. Then came September 11 and the Anthrax scare on Capitol Hill. More security measures were added to the CVC plans, causing immediate delays and a budget increase of $150 million.

But the delays and budget increases were still continuing by 2003 when first the House, then the Senate, began holding hearings on the center's progress. They were unsuccessful at speeding up construction or reining in costs. By January 2007, when the Democrats took over Congress, the CVC's budget had reached $592 million and its completion date had been set back to June 2008. The House began hearings again, this time under Wasserman Schultz. At April's hearing she was told the budget would likely surpass $600 million and the final date would be September 2008. To say that Wasserman Schultz is frustrated over the project is an understatement. "I don't have the ability to see when the center will open," she says. "Right now what we need is a tourniquet."

Lawmakers disagree over why the center's construction is so delayed and expensive. Both Kingston and Wasserman Schultz say the job was just too big for Alan Hantman, the Architect of the Capitol until he retired in February. A spokesman for the Architect of the Capitol declined comment. But Kingston also blames poor management by Congress. "Members delegated this project to their staffs — there was no adult supervision," he says. "And the whole thing is an example of wants versus needs. Do we really need three more auditoriums in Washington? The largest cafeteria in Washington? A tunnel that links the CVC gift shop to the Library of Congress' gift shop?"

But Mica says the real problem is Congressional politics, not the Architect of the Capitol or a lack of oversight. "I could directly attribute the delays and cost overruns to members of Congress who couldn't make a decision, or made them and they weren't good," he says. For example, Mica says that Congress initially was going to reserve 160,000 sq. feet of undeveloped space inside the CVC facility for future office use. But in 2001, lawmakers realized it would be cheaper to develop the office space immediately. This change caused at least a year in delays, which in turn increased the budget.

Two watchdogs of government spending also blame lawmakers' indecisiveness and extravagance. "Anybody that's ever had work done on their home knows the greatest cost comes from changing the plans," says Steve Ellis, vice-president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. Thomas Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, argues that tourists are just fine standing in lines outside the White House and the monuments. "Why Congress members thought they were so special to deserve this facility speaks to their attitude for spending in general," he says.

Mica insists that the end result will be worth the $600 million price tag — which he calls a bargain compared to projects in the private sector. "This is a magnificent structure to accommodate our citizens and is absolutely necessary," Mica says.

"It better be impressive," says Ellis. "I'd be pretty upset if it weren't, at a cost of $600 million."