While the big highway and dam projects draw most of the attention, the powers-that-be on Capitol Hill are scrapping over a less visible but equally succulent political morse.
House and Senate committees are at sharp odds over proposals to revamp -- and even depolitcize -- the multibilllion-dollar federal office leasing and building program.
A Senate-passed bill that would alter the General Services Administration's building program and policies from top to bottom is getting a cold shoulder in the House.
Part of the resistance comes from GSA; part of it comes from architects who do not like some of the Senates's ideas. But most of it appears to come from House members who find power and advantage in the current system.
The fast-shrinking congressional calendar for 1981 is causing additional problems, although Rep. Elliott H. Levitas (D-Ga.), buildings subcommittee chairman, said he is optimistic about a bill being passed.
"I fully expect legislation in this Congress. It will be comprehensive and it will deal with almost all the points in the Senate bill," Levitas said.
Another reality, however, is that the Senate bill would upset political apple carts like few other recent measures have done and the Levitas subcommittee is not taking kindly to it.
The basic thrust of the Senate bill, pushed by Daniel P. Moynihan (D-N.Y.) and Robert T. Stafford (R-Vt.), is to reverse the rapidly growing trend toward housing federal office workers in rented space.
By 1983 it is expected that the government's annual rental bill will be $1 billion or more -- money down a rathole," as Moynihan has put it, leaving Uncle Sam with nothing more than a stack of rent stubs.
The more that Moynihan and Stafford looked at the rising rent bill, the more they began stewing over other facets of GSA and congressional policies on federal buildings.
No one would say it quite so bluntly, but buildings are as much a part of the political pork barrel as the more visible flood control and highway programs.
In recent months, the House and Senate public works committee, which control building activity, have been embroiled in political flaps over new office structures in New York, Milwaukee, Boston and Springfield, Mass.
Political sensitivities on federal building programs were underscored by recent House threats to stop a $100 million Social Security building project in Jamaica. Queens, In New York City. House members were angry because a Senate committee refused to accept a proposal to install a memorial for a Washington attorney, Ralph Becker, in the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
The impasse was broken recently with Senate approval of memorial for Becker, and the Jamaica project is no longer held hostage by the House.
Not that that sort of trading might ever stop, but the Moynihan-Stafford bill is aimed at a variety of major structural changes in GSA leasing and building activity.
It is designed to reduce leasing, generate more construction by the GSA, provide more thoughtful studies of building economics, stimulate architectural excellence and competition and encourage historical renovation.
A key part of the bill would require GSA to produce long-range building plans and to seek full congressional approval -- every year -- of each major building it plans to erect through a loan program in the Treasury.
The Levitas subcommittee is balking at the Senate's proposal for the yearly review by Congress Under the current systems, only the Public Works committees give the approvals for major GSA projects -- a feature that enhances individual members' ability of deliver favors.
The House subcommittee, with prompting from the American Institute of Architects, is opposing the Senate's requirement for design competitions on big projects. It also is favoring a feepayment plan for architects before their buildings are approved by Congress.
Despite those seemingly major differences, Levitas said that the House and Senate are closer to agreement on a reform bill than the record suggests.
Levitas said he agrees that the current building system is not working as it should and that big changes are needed. But he takes exception to the notion that the building program is part of the congressional politics of pork. n
"It's generally more of a curbing of GSA's political decisions that goes on at this subcommittee," Levitas said. "We tend to be a check on the administration."