Attack Stirs Interest in Visitors Center
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 26, 1998; Page A19 Friday's attack on Congress has renewed interest among lawmakers in a plan to build a $125 million center that would regulate the flow of visitors in and out of the U.S. Capitol.
Though security officials have long advocated creating a visitors center underneath the East Front of the Capitol, many lawmakers have balked at funding the project. Besides serving as the primary entrance and exit for visitors, the proposed center would have a 500-seat and two 250-seat auditoriums, a cafeteria, educational exhibit facilities, restrooms and a first-aid station.
Both Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) have supported building the complex with private funds.
At a Little Rock news conference yesterday, Lott said a center would keep attackers like Russell E. Weston Jr. from having immediate access to the Capitol. "The security checks would occur there, away from the building itself," Lott said.
But a lack of funding has stymied the project, and some Democrats are skeptical that it will ever be built unless lawmakers take the political risk of devoting public money to the center.
House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said yesterday that he pushed for the center when he traveled to Israel with Gingrich over the Memorial Day holiday.
"I suggested to the speaker that we undertake a joint effort to finance the center," Gephardt said in an interview. "He was interested in that."
Gingrich is interested in building the complex only if taxpayer money is not involved, said spokesman Andrew Weinstein. A Capitol preservation commission has raised $23 million for the center through the sale of commemorative coins, and the House has hired a consultant to move the project forward.
The idea of building a center surfaced after lawmakers analyzed security following a 1983 bomb explosion on the Senate side of the Capitol. Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Calif.), who was chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch between 1981 and 1994, said lawmakers such as Gingrich attacked the project as a congressional perk.
"Newt was personally critical of this effort," Fazio recalled. "It's only the demagoguery that we used to engage in every time we talk about spending a dime on the legislative branch that kept this from happening."
In February, Senate Sergeant at Arms Greg Casey testified that some version of the visitors center plan "has to be done" to protect the Capitol. He told the Senate Rules and Administration Committee that a center would make the complex much easier to secure by reducing the number of access points for the 10 million annual visitors and by pushing all screening of people and packages outside the Capitol. In May 1997, several members of the Capitol Police Board testified that a visitors center would also help the force regulate the number of people in the buildings and would better prepare officers for an orderly evacuation during an emergency.
House Sergeant at Arms Bill Livingood said in an interview yesterday that he supports building a center, though he did not know whether it was "relevant" to Friday's shooting. "I've always been in favor of the visitors center from a security standpoint," he said.
Both Gephardt and Fazio said a center would also provide tourists with a more meaningful visit because they could watch films and grasp the layout of the building before entering. Gephardt noted that the number of tourists pouring into the nearly 200-year-old building increases every year. Thousands of lawmakers, staff members, reporters and lobbyists show up every day.
"You've just got an almost intolerable situation in terms of the building's capacity to handle all those people," he said.
Fazio said he believed lawmakers could devote government funds to the plan without repercussion if they explained to constituents how it would improve their tours of Congress.
"The American people would see this as an investment in their Capitol," he said. "Otherwise it just becomes another example of a failure in leadership."
For years, building the center was an evanescent goal that slipped away just as Congress began to make progress on it. House and Senate members have introduced legislation authorizing the construction of an underground complex in each of the past two Congresses, but the bills have not become law. As far back as September 1994, the architect of the Capitol's workers began drilling holes into the East Front lawn of the Capitol in anticipation of construction, which has yet to take place.
Last July, Secretary of the Senate Gary Sisco predicted that legislation would pass in time to begin the project within a year, so it could be close to completion by the time the Capitol celebrated its 200th anniversary in 2000. "It will move," Sisco told The Hill newspaper.
The cost of the project has also soared, rising from an initial estimate of $71 million to its current projected $125 million.
Some Republicans remain concerned about both the cost of building the complex and maintaining it. Senate Rules and Administration Committee Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.), whose panel would help oversee a center, has suggested that Congress might finance the parts of it designed to enhance security if philanthropic organizations paid for the rest.
In interviews yesterday, House Appropriations Committee chairman Bob Livingston (R-La.) and James T. Walsh (R-N.Y.), who chairs the legislative branch subcommittee, questioned whether a center would protect lawmakers and the public from a gunman like Weston.
"It's not a cure-all," Walsh warned. "If there had been a visitors center, he probably would have killed someone in the visitors center. No matter where you stop an angry person with a gun, someone is going to get hurt."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company