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."
Adding to the confusion was the announcement last week from the independent Congressional Budget Office, which released the first cost estimate for the proposal, saying the government may need to set aside $270 million to relocate the Federal Trade Commission.
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."
Rep. Mica 'A Fan of the Arts'
When asked how Rep. Mica came up with the plan to move the gallery into the FTC headquarters, his aides said they weren't sure. But they defended the plan, and said there are a number of solid reasons for Mica's dedication to seeing it happen.
The congressman's zeal, they said, stems from his desire to see Washington, D.C. benefit from a popular tourist attraction, and from his love of the gallery's collection and art in general. They also said that over time, they remained convinced that the proposal will save the government some $300 million, because the National Gallery would assume the cost of future building renovations using privately raised funds.
"He thinks it makes good economic sense for the taxpayers" to push the cost of renovating the 80-year-old building off to the gallery, and to eliminate the expense the gallery now pays to lease space to store the art it cannot put on display, said Justin Harclerode, Mica's spokesman. "The Gallery has art it can't display. He feels it would be wise to use that space, which is right across from the Gallery's other facilities … [and] open it up to much greater public use and benefit."
After the Congressional Budget Office released its cost estimate last week, Mica personally met with officials there to contest their findings. They argued that the estimate was based on the assumption that the government would need to build a new headquarters for the FTC. Mica's aides said that wasn't necessary.
Attempts by ABC News to confirm whether there is adequate federal office space for the FTC available were unsuccessful. The agency that tracks federal office space, the General Services Administration, declined to answer questions on the topic. Mica's committee has authority over the GSA's projects and leases.
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.