- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 19, 2005

During Tuesday’s Senate Appropriations Legislative Branch subcommittee hearing, Sen. Dick Durbin asked project executives of the Capitol Visitor Center two very good questions: “Is this the most dangerous construction site in Washington, and if so why aren’t we embarrassed about it?” According to a recent Government Accountability Office report, the answer to the first question is yes. We take the second as rhetorical — of course, Congress should be embarrassed. After all, it was they who have appropriated more than $450 million for the eye sore in front of the East face of the Capitol.

As the Hill newspaper reported Wednesday, the injury and illness rate for 2003 was about 50 percent higher for the visitors centers than for comparable construction sites. And the rate for 2004 was 30 percent higher than 2003. But safety is just the latest problem plaguing the center.

When Congress first approved the 585,000-square-foot facility in 1999, the price tag came to about $260 million. Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman planned to have the underground center finished in time for Inauguration Day 2005. Now, the deadline is set — tentatively — for fall 2006, and the price tag — again, tentatively — will round out near $559 million, according to GAO estimates. The non-partisan Citizens Against Government Waste, which issued a critical report on the visitors center a couple months back, says this will “rank among the most wasteful examples of botched construction projects ever promulgated by the federal government.”

That’s some indictment. Part of the problem for the skyrocketing costs has to do with security measures added to Mr. Hantman’s design in the wake of September 11. Security, in fact, was what convinced congressional leaders in 1999 to approve the project in the first place, after two Capitol Police officers were gunned down by a lunatic. Also, the Fund for the Capitol Visitor Center was expected to raise $100 million from private donors, but only received about $40 million — 90 percent given by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Annenberg Foundation and Coca-Cola. The inability to solicit private funds probably should have signaled to Congress that the American people didn’t exactly see a need for the center.

But make no mistake — the Capitol Visitors Center has always been a bad idea. Originally, it was conceived by Democrats as some sort of homage to the congressional giants — and those of lesser stature — of a bygone era. Regrettably, the Republican majority in Congress eventually authorized this boondoggle. And with the present emphasis on safety, it will, whatever the cost, continue until it’s completed.

We just ask that when they get around to decorating the interior to show some restraint in lionizing our congressional forebears. This means no toga-draped marble statues.

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