During the grueling budget debate, members of Congress had a lot on their minds -- like whether to cut medical care for the elderly or day care for children, and, by the way, where to put their new tennis court.
The Senate already has a tennis court in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. But the poor members of the House don't have any place to practice their ground strokes on the taxpayer's dime.
Apparently a few members of Congress decided it was time to remedy the situation. They have ordered the architect of the Capitol to draw up plans for a House tennis court, either in the courtyard of one building in the Capitol complex or on the roof of another.
Congressional sources told us that Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.) led the pack. A spokesman for Solarz confirmed that the congressman had been involved in meetings about the tennis court. "All through this there has been a general assumption that if they went ahead with this, no public funds would be used," the spokesman said. But Solarz's office offered no explanation of whose pockets Congress would dip into for this gift, if not the taxpayers'.
Maybe they expected a donation from a generous corporate constituent -- no strings attached, of course. Then they could hang a plaque with the donor's name right next to the requisite buzzer system that would summon the players from the court to the House floor for a vote.
Solarz may not have planned to stick the taxpayers with the bill, but public money has already been spent on the project -- design time in the office of the Capitol architect, George M. White.
White acknowledged his staff has done "informal sketches" at the request of some House members. The tennis court, which would have to be approved by the House leadership, could go in the courtyard of the Cannon House Office Building, or on the roof of the Madison Building of the Library of Congress.
Hill sources told our associate Tim Warner that meetings with White about the tennis courts occurred during the tortured budget negotiations.
White, whose full-time job for the last 20 years has been keeping up with renovation and new construction in the Capitol complex, is obligated to respond with designs when members of Congress make suggestions. Then it is up to Congress whether to fund the notion.
White characterized the tennis court as "the pipe dream of a few tennis players."
Solarz has a history of mixing business and tennis. In 1983 we obtained State Department cables explaining to U.S. embassies how Solarz expected to be treated on a trip to Latin America. "Tennis courts are an important plus . . . Solarz would like to play tennis every day if possible . . . ," one cable said.
White hasn't generated cost figures yet on Solarz's latest request, so we asked a tennis court builder for a guesstimate. A basic asphalt court would cost about $28,000. Padding would add $4,000. And for those late-night sessions, it would cost another $8,000 to light the court. Putting the court on the roof of a building adds unknown costs depending on how much work the roof would need to support the court.