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D.C. Center Monument to Congress — and Pork

The U.S. Capitol's new visitors' center, which opened today, came in almost nine times over its original cost estimate.

The latest major addition to Capitol Hill architecture is a spacious underground exhibition hall built to showcase Congress and its ideals: democracy, tradition, unity. To critics, the project epitomizes a less flattering trait of the legislative branch: its capacity for wasteful spending.

The Capitol Visitor Center opened today (Dec. 2) as the new entry point for tourists. The gleaming 580,000-square-foot facility introduces Congress through displays of historic documents, statuary, an emotive film and guided tours — all in one location meant to make the Capitol more accessible to about 3 million visitors every year.

Citizens Against Government Waste has attacked the center, however, as one of the most wasteful federal construction projects. The watchdog started calling it a “boondoggle” in 2002, predicting that its then-$265 million project budget would keep expanding. And did it ever.

Originally expected to cost $71 million, the center was finished after several blown deadlines, nearly a decade after its 2000 groundbreaking ceremony with an eye-popping price tag of $621 million.

“The mismanagement and bloat associated with the construction of the Capitol Visitors Center is emblematic of the rampant waste in the nation’s capitol,” Tom Schatz, the watchdog group’s president, said in a press release Tuesday.

Schatz said Congress exploited security concerns after Sept. 11, 2001, to justify extravagant additions to the work that brought on costly change orders. He said lawmakers also quickly forgot early plans to leave about 170,000 square feet of the project as “shell space” for future House and Senate office expansions, immediately outfitting the areas as new hearing rooms and a broadcast studio.

Despite the criticism, the finished product was abuzz with excitement this week as workers pulled down scaffolding that long blocked foot traffic and obscured views of the Capitol.

The opening day is being heralded as a historic occasion, not simply the first deadline to stick after chronic delays. The doors are open 145years to the day after the final section of the Statue of Freedom was placed atop the Capitol dome on Dec. 2, 1863.

The sprawling three-level center has walls carved out of several acres of Pennsylvania sandstone, Tennessee marble and Virginia granite, as well as skylights that show the Capitol dome towering above.

At the focal point of the main Emancipation Hall is a plaster model of Freedom, the figure that sculptor Thomas Crawford envisioned to represent “Freedom triumphant in war and peace.” The model was shipped in 1858 from Rome to Washington, where slaves cast it in bronze and assembled it on the Capitol grounds before it was hoisted atop the dome.

The grand hall also has several of the 24 sculptures borrowed from the National Statuary Hall Collection of important figures from each state, including the gilded image of King Kamehameha I, the Hawaiian warrior king; activist Helen Keller of Alabama; Lewis and Clark guide Sakakawea of North Dakota; and astronaut Jack Swigert of Colorado.

The exhibit space features the Wall of Aspirations, two 93-foot curving marble displays of historic artifacts such as Thomas Jefferson’s confidential letter to Congress asking them to pay for the Lewis and Clark expedition, John F. Kennedy’s man-on-the-moon speech, Franklin Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech, the 19th Amendment and the Medicare Act of 1965.

Sharon Gang, spokeswoman for the visitors’ center, said she expects guests will spend much more time on the Hill than they have in the past, when a Capitol tour sometimes meant long lines in nasty weather. Now the public can reserve time
slots online and catch the exhibits before or afterward.

“We hope they have a better experience than they’ve had,” she said. “The tour was always really great, but you couldn’t really plan your day because you didn’t know if you were going to be able to get in.”

The center is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, except major holidays. Make a tour reservation here.

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