RIGHT ON CUE, a 16-foot section of the West Front of the U.S. Capitol crumbled away last week. Left revealed for all to see was a sizable chunk of what we believe we were all talking about a few months back when we were so obsessed with "infrastructure." The timing was perfect because Congress is right now gearing up for its perennial battle over whether and how to restore the dilapidated west face, which includes the only remaining soft sandstone portion of the original Capitol building.

Why does the Capitol building of the richest country in the world have to stand around with its infrastructure hanging out? Because for roughly 30 years progress toward restoration has been impeded by the historic drive of the U.S. Congress for more space in which to perform its important functions. Having long ago defaced the East Front of the Capitol with an ungainly extension, congressional leaders have been striving to use the needed restoration as an excuse to tack on another--though more modest--extension to the west. Extension-minded congressmen have been aided in their drive by the Architect of the Capitol, a man long accustomed to accommodating the congressional preference for the type of grandeur that seems to take its architectural inspiration from the Italian monstrosities of the Mussolini period. The architect has obligingly estimated that while it will cost about $66 million to restore the old sandstone facade, a gleaming marble extension--which would serve the same supportive function and provide congressional leaders with some high-class office space to boot--can be purchased for only an additional $7 million. If you are suspicious that that estimate of relative costs isn't accurate, don't be. Be certain.

Money, however, isn't really the issue. Sixty-six million is a lot of money. But preserving one of the nation's most treasured historic structures is surely worth the price. And even if you don't care much about historic preservation, you may agree that the group responsible for the Rayburn and Hart office buildings has rather forfeited its claim to preeminence on architectual and aesthetic questions, not to mention on the question of containing building costs. Congress has easy access to unbiased expert advice about how best to restore the Capitol, and the Senate is already on record in favor of restoration. It's time for House leaders to abandon their territorial aspirations.