Watchdog Groups Slam Capitol Architect for $690 Million Budget Request

The nation's Capitol is falling apart. That's what it looks like in the budget, anyway.

The office of Architect of the Capitol, which oversees maintenance of the sprawling Capitol complex buildings and grounds, has requested a 15 percent increase over last year in the fiscal 2011 federal budget -- at a time when President Obama and Congress are calling for government-wide spending restraint.

The ambitious $690 million request has some government watchdogs shaking their heads, especially after the Capitol Visitor Center, which falls under that office, opened at the end of 2008 -- four years late and $356 million over budget.

"They're unrepentant in terms of what they keep looking for, and now they don't even have the Capitol Visitor Center to build," said Thomas Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste. "Clearly the architect has not gotten the message about a spending freeze."

Obama called for a three-year freeze on certain non-security spending in his State of the Union address last week. Many departments, including Commerce, Labor and State, are seeing a decrease in the president's proposed budget, though the budget as a whole represents an increase over last year.

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But the Architect of the Capitol is requesting exceptionally high increases in certain areas. The budget requests $80 million for "maintenance, care and operation" of the U.S. Capitol building, more than double the $33 million for last year. The budget requests $101 million for "maintenance, care and operation" of the Library of Congress buildings and grounds, more than double the $46 million for last year.

The office is also asking for $30 million over last year's budget to work on Senate office buildings, though the request is $10 billion less than last year's for the House side.

Schatz said the architect's office is "notorious" for asking for big increases -- though the office typically doesn't get all that it asks for.

The office requested $645 million in the last budget and was approved for $602 million.

Repeated attempts to reach a representative for Acting Architect Stephen Ayers for comment were unsuccessful.

One representative told Roll Call that the office is trying to get out from under a "backlog of deferred" repairs.

Sandra Fabry, government affairs manager with Americans for Tax Reform, said that despite the need for repairs, "now is certainly not the time" for big-ticket budget requests.

"There is just no way that an increase of such proportions can be considered reasonable given the dire straits we're in fiscally," she said. "They've seen massive increases in funding in the past."

The $602 million the office was budgeted for in 2010 marked a 14 percent increase over its $530 million amount from the year before.

The office has faced the ire of lawmakers over the years for blowing through money on the Capitol Visitor Center, a project that started in 2000. The project was delayed and bloated due to post-Sept. 11 security changes as well as other adjustments.