Capitol Visitor Center Has Become a Money Pit

In the 80s there was a movie called The Money Pit, starring Tom Hanks and Shelley Long as a couple who buy their dream house only to see it fall apart. Costs continue to rise, and the couple falls deeper and deeper into debt. Each time they ask a contractor how long it will take to make repairs, the answer is always “two more weeks” and of course, more money.

Right now, Congress is dealing with its own version of The Money Pit — the Capitol Visitor Center (CVC). Only instead of “two more weeks,” we are now almost four years behind schedule and at more than twice the original price tag. And to top it off, we’re using the taxpayer’s checkbook to foot the bill.

Bilking the Taxpayers

The CVC started off modestly enough. The goal was to have a place for the more than three million annual visitors to wait and learn some history of the Capitol before touring the building. It sounded like a great idea, so in 1999, Congress approved the project with a $265-million price tag and some funding from private donations. Coca-Cola, for example, pledged $1 million. But in the end, it was taxpayers who provided the bulk of the money.
The CVC broke ground in 2000, but now that modest visitor center has grown into a mind-boggling $600-million, 580,000-square-foot center. To put that it in perspective, consider that the cost is just shy of the $611-million baseball stadium that is being built in Washington. Increased delays in the CVC’s opening have accompanied the rising costs. It was initially planned to open in December 2004, but that was pushed to the end of 2007. Then it was rescheduled to open September 2008, but now it seems November 2008 is more realistic.

Why the delay and increased costs? Some of the expenses are explainable. After 9/11, new security measures were necessary — while others aren’t. 

First, during construction, workers had to work around Congress’s schedule so the jackhammers wouldn’t disturb the members while in session. Apparently people in politics need a very quite atmosphere to get their thinking done. So a half-million dollars later for noise-reduction windows, lawmakers got peace and quiet to do that important thinking. More money was set aside to ensure that more than 300 historic trees on the East Capitol ground were preserved during the construction. It cost $40,000 to move just one tree. Only Congress would engage in such silliness.

What Will We Get?

So, when the “two more weeks” is finally up and the final bill is submitted, what will visitors get when they walk into the CVC? We should probably start with what they aren’t getting, because a quarter of the center isn’t even for their use but rather has been reserved for Congress. You didn’t think members wouldn’t try to get something for themselves, did you? 

Between the House and the Senate, Congress has managed to snag 85,000 square feet of new office space, meeting rooms, a 3,500-square-foot hearing room and a huge TV and radio studio, complete with makeup facilities and climate-controlled storage facilities for the two gift shops. These offices will be filled with busy-body congressional employees who will spend their time coming up with new regulations and new government programs.
There’s also the $20-million congressional auditorium that seats 450 people. Of course, Congress needs another auditorium like Washington needs another lobbyist. The idea is to use it as an alternate House and Senate chamber should the Capitol need to be renovated. But there is one slight problem: There already is an alternative congressional auditorium located in the Library of Congress.

So, what will visitors see when they walk into the CVC?

They will enter a center that is two-thirds the size of the Capitol that will be composed of granite, marble, sandstone and bronze. There’s a Great Hall with large skylights, fountains, mahogany wood paneling and spiral staircases. I suppose bronze, marble and fountains help one understand history better. And in case you’ve ever felt the need, there will be a touchable, 3-D Capitol dome to cap off your tour. And to keep people from getting excited, all references to God have been watered down and cleansed out.

Visitors also got their own auditoriums in the complex. There’s a Senate Orientation Theater and a House Orientation Theater. The House has its complaints and problems with our colleagues on the other side of the Capitol, but surely we can manage to share an orientation theater. 

So how did a humble visitor center turn into a monument to government inefficiency, ineptitude and excessiveness?

Duties Ignored

In 2003, when I took over as chairman of the Legislative Branch appropriations subcommittee, which oversees construction of the visitor center, it became clear that a small number of members supported the center, but they didn’t want the due diligence of actually overseeing the process. Staff owned the project. Members were too busy passing immigration reform, tax simplifications and Katrina relief — other matters that displayed our competencies. 

Unfortunately, that’s not much consolation to the taxpayers who are left shouldering the cost and wondering how on earth, if Congress can’t control a spending project that is literally in their own backyard, Congress can manage to control federal spending.

Towards the end of The Money Pit, Tom Hanks’ character asks one final time how long it will take to finish the house, and when told, once again, “two more weeks,” he breaks out laughing hysterically. No one in Congress is laughing, but as long as it has its lowest approval rating in history, there are so many other reasons to be mad. The CVC has just escaped public scrutiny.