Surrounded by evidence of governmental confusion - the unfinished Hart Senate Office Building outside and a nonconversationist 66-degree temperature inside - the puckish Daniel Moynihan yesterday attempted to lead the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee through the tangled financial affairs of the Kennedy Center.
In the process, acting committee chairman Moynihan, his colleagues John H. Chafee (R-R.I.) and Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and such theatrical witnesses as producer and director Joe Papp and Lincoln Center president John W. Mazzola turned the hearings into a sometimes comedic event, replete with one-liners, mixed metaphors and malapropisms.
"Are you quibbling about those free tickets?" Chafee barked as he entered late. "I've been a beneficiary of those [presidential box] tickets and enjoyed them, and I'd like to enjoy them again."
Chafee was sniping at Domenici's bill to abolish those free tickets unless the president himself used them; but the real issue at yesterday's hearings was the massive $37 million debt -- $20.4 million in principal and $16.5 million in interest -- that the Kennedy Center owes the Treasury Department.
In an unusual display of unanimity, the departments of the Treasury and Interior, the Office of Management and Budget and the Kennedy Center board of trustees have put together a five-part proposal to put the Center back on its financial feet.
According to this administration-backed proposal, the accrued interest would be forgiven and the outstanding loans converted to interest-free notes, and the Treasury would pay off the remainder of a loan from the parking concessionaire and add it to the $20 million principle, to be paid off over 40 years.
Interior would assume 70% of the operation and maintenance costs of the Center (for its nonperforming, tourists function) and all structural repair responsibility. The secretaries of Treasury and Interior would become members of the Kennedy Center board of trustees.
A second proposal, voiced yesterday by Chafee and heartily endorsed in testimony by Papp, would have Congress appropriate funds to wipe out the entire debt so that the Center could start over "on a claen slate.
Moynihan and Domenici have introduced a bill that would after the rate at which tax-exempt contributions are credited toward the Center's debt, but would not erase the interest debt.
Sen. Charles Percy (R-iii.), a Kennedy Center trustee, testified that the debt "has been hanging over our heads for years," and that the Center "should never have accepted" a compound interest on the loans.
"We are part and parcel of the government," said Percy. "The idea that we should pay interest on bonds to the U.S. government is ludicrous."
In any case, board chairman Roger Stevens argued, the interest should not be compounded, but simple.
Despite the fervent and energetic testimony, it was Moynihan's show from beginning to end.
Characterizing the Kennedy Center's architecture as "Grand Rapids Roman," Moynihan said that architect Edward Durrell Stone reminded him of a Disraeli character "distinguished fr his ingnorance in that he had only one idea, and it was wrong."
He saluted the administration witnesses by saying, "it's nice to know there's still someone in the administration left to talk to," and at the close of the hearings gave a countdown of the latest Cabinet firings.
Mazzola joked that "'Live from Lincoln Center' is supported by Exxon, and 'Live from the Met' is supported by Texaco; and there's law of physics that says oil and oil don't mix."
However, he stumbled a moment later when he said: "We are accomplishing a great deal in the way of energy consumption at Lincoln Center."
Papp dismissed a bill introduced last session by Sen. James A. Mcclure (R-Idao) as a plan "to rob Peter and not pay Paul," but undercut his masterful performance a moment later when he described his independent theatrical company. "We are our own bees, and we spin our own webs and make our own honey," he said to the crowd's amusement.
No further hearings have been scheduled. However, Moynihan has indicated he is anxious for the Senate to complete work on the Kennedy Center question during this session.