What Deficit? CBO Says GOP Congressman's Plan Would Spend $270M On Art

Florida's John Mica pushes National Art Gallery expansion amid talk of austerity

ByABC News
April 20, 2011, 12:11 PM

April 20, 2011 — -- Just as Republicans in Congress have been calling for an aggressive crackdown on federal spending, one powerful House leader has declared that his desire to expand the National Gallery of Art -- at an estimated cost of $270 million -- has become his singular, top priority on Capitol Hill.

Rep. John Mica, the Florida Republican who chairs the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, has spent years pushing legislation to evict the Federal Trade Commission from its stately historic building on Pennsylvania Avenue in the heart of Washington, D.C., to make space for the art gallery expansion. Even after taking the helm of a committee that helps set the nation's policy on everything from air safety to mass transit to highway construction, Mica has maintained his laser focus on winning approval for this pet project.

"I have no other priority for the balance of my tenure in Congress," Mica said at a House subcommittee meeting in March.

Mica's pursuit of the gallery expansion has baffled many Capitol Hill regulars, though few are as perplexed as the senior leaders of the Federal Trade Commission, whose agency name was carved into the building's stone entrance seven decades ago.

"I'm frankly bewildered by it," J. Thomas Rosch, a Republican member of the Federal Trade Commission, told ABC News in an interview this week.

Rosch said he couldn't understand how the expansion rose to become Mica's top priority even before he held a single hearing as committee chairman, before he identified where the FTC was going to go, before anyone had determined the fair market value of the FTC building, and before anyone had conducted an impartial evaluation of what it would cost taxpayers.

"I have no idea what's behind this," Rosch said. "But I do not understand how a Republican can make this his only priority as a committee chairman when there has been no examination of the factors that I just talked about. I fail to understand that."

The proposal is not without its supporters. A Washington Post columnist endorsed the idea as a rare example of a congressman willing to devote money to promote art and culture offerings in the nation's capital. And though officials at the National Gallery acknowledge they did not come up with the idea, they have come to embrace it, too.

"The Gallery has reached a decisive moment when its future public programming and space needs must be addressed and this requires a long-term solution to provide adequate space in a consolidated campus," National Gallery spokeswoman Deborah Ziska said in a statement emailed to ABC News. "When the opportunity to expand to the FTC building was first proposed by Rep. Mica, the Board of Trustees of the National Gallery of Art responded enthusiastically."

Mica's office said the congressman would be fine-tuning the language in the bill in coming weeks to make clear they have not authorized the government to build a new headquarters for the FTC employees that would be displaced by the museum -- a move they expect will dramatically reduce the current, $270 million price tag, if not eliminate it altogether. Harclerode said Mica has no plans to stop pushing.

"He's very much a fan of art in the museum and just the arts in general," he said.

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