Plenty of critics have accused Congress of forgetting the Constitution from time to time.
But a constitutional scholar who has toured the new Capitol Visitor Center, a monument Congress built to itself which is to be dedicated Tuesday, goes even further, with exhibits that mangle the founding document by claiming constitutional backing for powers that are still very much in dispute.
Heritage Foundation, says the visitor center selectively cuts passages from the Constitution, weighing in on a long-running debate about the scope and limits of federal power by taking the liberal side of that debate, envisioning broad congressional powers that the founding fathers never intended.
“I started looking at this stuff and it’s just patently absurd,” he said. “The dominant message when you walk though the doors in this exhibit you’re hit with is the role of Congress is to fulfill our greatest aspirations. So the message you’re teaching these millions of visitors each year is the Constitution really isn’t what we thought it was, it’s the open-ended thing that’s up to Congress to decide what it means.”
The top leaders from each party in the House and Senate are expected to host an opening ceremony Tuesday morning for the new center.
The center is twice its original budget and four years late in opening, and as the delays and cost-overruns piled up, so has criticism. Some lawmakers have objected to what they say is left out of the exhibits. South Carolina Republican, fought to have the Pledge of Allegiance and the national motto, “In God We Trust,” added to the displays.
But Mr. Spalding said was was put into the displays is just as problematic as what was left out.
He singled out the display on “Knowledge,” which he said selectively cuts the powers granted to Congress by Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, reducing the full explanation “To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries” to an expansive grant: “The Congress shall have Power To … promote … useful Arts.”
The display says that grant of powers is the basis under which Congress has founded the Library of Congress, “promoted public education, supported the arts and sciences, and funded extensive research.”
In addition to knowledge, the other aspirations the displays say Congress is charged with helping fulfill are unity, freedom, defense, exploration and general welfare.
“In the seeds of how they’re dealing with the Constitution, what they’re really telling everybody, the message they’re really telling everybody, is Congress is unlimited, and it’s Congress that will define oiur highest ideals and aspirations,” Mr. Spalding said. “When you think about that, that’s a radical message.”
Tom Fontana, a spokesman for the Architect of the Capitol, which is overseeing the new center, didn’t return messages seeking comment.
The content of the exhibits was developed by a working group of Library of Congress officials and the historians and curators of the House, Senate and Capitol.
Donald A. Ritchie, the Senate’s associate historian, said the script has been vetted by the leadership of both parties in both the House and Senate, and revised repeatedly.
“Anything is open to interpretation, obviously,” he said.
Mr. Ritchie said the Library of Congress requested that a section on knowledge be included, and he said even though the library isn’t mentioned in the Constitution, more than 200 years of operation have shown it is fundamental to Congress’ operation.
At a press conference called in November to preview the opening Stephen Ayers, acting architect of the Capitol, called the CVC “a treasure in itself.”
The entrance to the new center will be on the east front of the Capitol, in between the grand building and the Supreme Court and Library of Congress, both of which are on the other side of First Street.
Ground was broken in 2000 and hallways on the east side of the Capitol were shut down in 2003 to accommodate construction. A key goal was to push the security check for visitors further away from the entrance to the actual Capitol.
Part of the new arrangement is that visitors can make reservations for a visit ahead of time. And in the exhibition center they can see tools used in construction of the original Capitol and documents from the early days of the government.