Fred Hiatt
Editorial page editor April 1, 2011

Rep. John L. Mica is conservative, but he’s not what you would call a Tea Party conservative.

A member of Congress for almost two decades, the Florida Republican spearheaded the move to allow airline pilots to carry guns and wants to privatize a good chunk of airport security operations.

Fred Hiatt is the editorial page editor of The Post. He writes editorials for the newspaper and a biweekly column that appears on Mondays. He also contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

But he isn’t against spending money now and then. He championed the Congressional Visitors Center. Recently he tried, without success, to persuade Florida’s new Republican governor to accept the money President Obama was offering for high-speed rail.

And as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Mica has one more grand project in his sights: He wants to evict the Federal Trade Commission from its historic quarters at Pennsylvania and Constitution avenues and let the National Gallery of Art move in.

“You won’t believe me, but this is my only priority as chairman,” he says — a fact that has the commissioners sputtering.

“I know the commissioners have fourth-floor balconies with great views of the Capitol,” Mica says dismissively.

Which has the commissioners sputtering even more.

“I have no view,” exclaims Commissioner Tom Rosch, pointing out that (a) he is a Republican and (b) his term will expire before any eviction could take place. “And I suspect that Mica has a bigger office than I do.”

“We need to examine this gentleman’s motives,” Rosch continues. “Is it because he has a grudge against us? . . . Is it that he would like his picture emblazoned on their brochure? . . . Is it ego? . . . I don’t know.”

“I know the commissioners think I hate them,” Mica says, with the air of a man who’s not losing much sleep over that little misunderstanding. “That’s not the truth. . . . They’re an important agency. I’m not trying to kick dirt in their face.”

What he is trying to do, Mica says, is help the National Gallery rival the great museums of other world capitals: the Louvre, the Prado, the National Gallery in London. As an art lover, collector and frequent museum visitor, Mica explains, it pains him that much of the National Gallery’s collection has to be kept in the equivalent of the attic.

When I ask how his project will play among penny-pinching Republicans, Mica replies, “If they don’t like art, look at the finances.” By consolidating the FTC, which is leasing a couple of satellite sites, he argues, and by offloading to the National Gallery’s private donors the $200 million-plus cost of renovating the seven-decade-old FTC building, taxpayers will save money and the Federal Triangle will be enriched for visitors and Washingtonians.

“I don’t believe the savings are really there,” responds commissioner Edith Ramirez. The FTC denies that its building is in imminent need of an upgrade; worries that a new location would be inferior, and possibly still not consolidated; and maintains that its core mission of protecting consumers could be compromised.

“To disrupt this mission now, when consumers are suffering,” would be especially wrong, says commissioner Julie Brill. And, says commissioner William E. Kovacic, the mission would certainly suffer if the FTC were removed from a structure “that has become so identified with us and our brand.”

“Imagine Google casting aside its logo,” Kovacic says. “Or Coca-Cola changing its script.” Besides, he adds, the building, with its offices and courtrooms, is unsuited to displaying art.

On which point National Gallery director Earl A. “Rusty” Powell III begs to differ. Powell takes pains to point out that he didn’t go looking for this building. But, he says, “if we were offered the building, we would be grateful, and we would undertake to do things that would be good for Washington and good for the gallery.”

Specifically, Powell says, the museum would create exhibit space for prints and drawings (it owns 105,000 works on paper, most of which are rarely displayed); an education center; and a better, more accessible library. It could build a pedestrian tunnel under Constitution Avenue, like the one that connects its East and West Buildings. It could keep the space open at night, which would further enliven Penn Quarter.

“We haven’t expanded since 1978,” Powell says, “and the collection has grown enormously since then.”

The stunning transformations of the old Pension Building into the National Building Museum and the U.S. Patent Office into the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum show what can be achieved. Other, even bigger blueprints to improve Washington are gathering dust in this period of austerity: Michael Kaiser’s plan to draw pedestrians from the Mall by covering the highways that isolate the Kennedy Center, for example, and age-old ideas to make better use of Washington’s riverfront.

There’s no reason America couldn’t build such things, if the country took bipartisan hold of its finances. That would require Mica’s fellow Republicans to admit that not all taxes are bad and Democrats to acknowledge that Social Security payouts can’t get bigger for each successive generation, even for wealthy retirees. Maybe, as the national debt grows, we’re moving toward some kind of understanding of these points.

Meanwhile, Mica isn’t waiting. I don’t know whether his numbers add up; the FTC has a reasonable point when it argues for more independent analysis before it is forced to decamp. But I think we should be grateful for politicians who still think big for the nation’s capital.

fredhiatt@washpost.com