In the early 1990s, Congress got the idea that America needed an underground facility where tourists could escape D.C.'s August heat and February chill while waiting out the long lines to tour the Capitol building and meet their smiling congressman. Estimated cost: about $70 million.
In the 15 years since, the project morphed into a sprawling, $621 million, three-story, ostentatious shrine to "the legislative process." In other words, Congress built a tribute to itself. So it's probably only fitting that members of Congress also took every opportunity throw lard at the project, just as if they were greasing up an appropriations bill.
Like the federal budget itself, Congress used the CVC as a warehouse for tens of millions of dollars in extravagant bells and whistles for itself. Even more reprehensible, members of Congress seeking to add special features for themselves used security concerns surrounding the September 11 attacks to justify their extravagant add-ons and constant change orders."
Original plans called for more than half of the CVC space to be left as unfinished "shell space", available to be outfitted for future needs. Instead, in 2001 Congress began implementing its wish list for the unfinished spaces. The House side got a two-story hearing room and the Senate grafted on a collection of small hearing rooms and a television and radio studio with adjoining makeup facilities so that senators could cut spots for their constituents back home. Those two efforts alone added $85 million to the cost of the CVC. The CVC will also have a 450-seat dining area, two orientation theaters (one for each chamber), a large auditorium, and an exhibition hall.
The building finally opened this week, three years past deadline and more than $300 million over an already bloated budget. Yesterday's grand opening featured grand speechifying by congressional leaders and VIPs. One thing it didn't feature: tourists and taxpayers. It was closed to the public. And with good reason. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) wasn't content with merely bilking taxpayers for Congress' half-billion-plus vanity project, he felt compelled to insult them, too:
"My staff tells me not to say this, but I'm going to say it anyway," said Reid in his remarks. "In the summer because of the heat and high humidity, you could literally smell the tourists coming into the Capitol. It may be descriptive but it's true."
But it's no longer going to be true, noted Reid, thanks to the air conditioned, indoor space.
And that's not all. "We have many bathrooms here, as you can see," Reid continued. "Souvenirs are available."
But at least Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) is livid about the project. Alas, it's not because the Center is vain and wasteful. DeMint is angry that the Center "ignored his request to include the phrase 'In God We Trust' and the Pledge of Allegiance." If only they had included a chapel, too!
Overly grandiose, self-important, self-congratulatory, larded with wasteful add-ons demanded by individual politicians, contemptuous of taxpayers—come to think of it, this whole sorry episode might actually be the perfect tribute to Congress.
I wrote about Congress' inability to stop the cluttering of the National Mall two years ago in reason.