WASHINGTON, July 4, 2006 -- Six years ago, it seemed like a good idea -- Congress decided that a new United States Capitol Visitor Center should be built. It would -- as their web site states -- provide "a variety of amenities, including an exhibition gallery, orientation theaters, a 600-seat cafeteria, gift shops, and restrooms all within a secure public environment that will provide visitors shelter from the unpredictable D.C. weather."
But Congress provided little supervision over the contractors handling the construction, and when we visited the construction site three years ago with a disgusted Congressman the dig was behind schedule and way over budget.
"It's unfortunately the poster child for governmental and congressional inefficiency," said Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga.
Congress promised the center would be finished before the last presidential inauguration. But the inauguration came and went -- and the hole just got bigger. As the years passed and construction slogged along, some members of Congress tried to shift the blame for delays and cost overruns onto the Capitol Architect.
But a big part of the problem was that Congress kept adding goodies, such as another $85 million to expand their own offices, say Congressional investigators. You may wonder what that has to do with the visitors' center. Yes, we wondered that, too. And we wondered whether the center was ever going to be finished.
Not to worry, said Congress. It will open this September at the latest, we were told. But now we learn it won't open until next July at the earliest -- a year from now.
"You often hear Congress complain about federal bureaucrats, and the executive branch and cost overruns and time delays on projects," said Steve Ellis of the group Taxpayers for Common Sense. "Here's Congress doing the same thing."
These days, tourists wandering around Capitol Hill could only stare at the construction. Here are some quotes we gathered from various people out and about near the tourist center.
"We're all kind of disappointed. We didn't know it was under construction," said one man who hoped to go inside.
"The fence is ruining my picture," said another man.
Congress wanted the visitors' center to show how things work on Capitol Hill. Well, Congress has succeeded: The center is three years behind schedule and will cost more than $500 million -- twice what it was supposed to cost.