Rep. John Mica, who is trying to have the FTC building, right, annexed to the National Gallery of Art, left, in Washington, DC. (June 14) (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST)

Rep. John L. Mica has what he calls a “weakness,” an obsession with art. He has fulfilled it as any aspiring connoisseur might. He scours odd shops and auction sites for objects treasured only by dust mites but still accruing worth with each passing year. He makes frequent trips to the National Gallery to research what he has bought and what he could buy. One day, while at the museum, he looked across the street and saw something old and undervalued: the Apex building, home to the Federal Trade Commission.

Decades ago, the Florida Republican was a developer. It gave him the means to treasure-hunt as well as a gut for appraisal — the real-estate concept of highest, best use. A question popped into his head: How many more Americans would benefit from the FTC building if the National Gallery were to take it over.

“I’ll stick around to see that it’s done,” he said recently over breakfast in the House dining room. “I’m a persistent [expletive].” The newly anointed chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee folded his long arms, a pinkie ring glistening on his right hand. He repeated, even more softly: “I’m a persistent [expletive].”

His new chairmanship makes him Capitol Hill’s overseer of all air, land and sea travel, but he also has purview over federal buildings and leasing. And through that portfolio, Mica is in an ideal position to work his will on the Federal Triangle.

Thus has begun an epic turf battle in Washington, a town-gown clash between federal workers and arts patrons. Not since the Nationals’ stadium remapped Southeast has there been so much public squabbling over a piece of real estate.

Arguments for and against

For the National Gallery, Mica’s quest would land it an additional 300,000 square feet of space, taking it from two buildings to three. At that scale, the museum would approach the grandeur and services of its counterparts in New York, Chicago, Paris or Madrid. “It would be very much in the spirit of European art museums — old structures that served a purpose of the nobility,” explained Mica’s predecessor as committee chairman, James L. Oberstar, the Minnesota Democrat whose long tenure ended with his November defeat.

“He clearly has a vision. I think it is inspiring,” said National Gallery Director Earl A. “Rusty” Powell III, careful to neither gloat nor growl. Powell would stay right where he is in the I.M. Pei-designed East Wing, with a Capitol panorama and a foggy Diebenkorn visible from his desk. The FTC commissioners’ prime office space, with communal balcony, is not what he’s after. “Certainly none of us were thinking, ‘Gosh, there’s the FTC building, let’s go for it,’ ” he said.

The National Gallery would not spend a single federal penny to convert the Apex, according to the plan; benefactors would pony up $200 million to adapt the building and preserve its Art Deco essence. An education facility would occupy the first floor, with storage for the 105,000 works on paper above that. Exhibition space would take advantage of the third floor’s high ceilings, with a photography center just above it. The seventh floor would house a restaurant with hand-over-your-heart views of the Capitol. Three-quarters of the building would be open to the public.

In the current fiscal climate, opponents of the plan — the FTC commissioners among them — are raising every argument they can surface.

Among them: The FTC, which is spread out over three buildings, needs a total of 500,000 square feet. Is there any building in the District that could even house such an agency?; The FTC pays a form of rent to the federal government. Would the gallery pay that $6 million each year?; The museum is a confusing private-public amalgam, with taxpayers paying operating costs and donors funding the art. So isn’t forcing the FTC out of its own building in effect favoring elite private interests over federal Washington?; And what about moving costs?

Inside the Apex building, the commissioners recoil at any notion that they would leave the structure, which has been preserved carefully for 73 years by them and their predecessors, who have included Caspar Weinberger, Elizabeth Dole, Orson Swindle.

Since 1938, the anti-fraud agency has occupied the structure built expressly for them by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who wielded the same silver trowel that George Washington used to lay the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol in 1793. “When he got out of his wheelchair to make the dedication speech, he envisioned this as our permanent home,” explained Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the commission. “You know, we’re very attached to it.”

Mica has assured the Apex’s inhabitants that he would find them a good new workplace in the District, perhaps even near a Metro stop. But clearly, to the FTC workers, it would never be the same.

Pursuit of his ‘own thing’

As a college student, John Mica thumbed around Europe, feeding a passion for culture, collecting and creativity. “My other brother Dan and I, we’d enjoy an afternoon at typical male sporting events,” explained Dave Mica, now a Tallahassee lobbyist. “John would be just as thrilled and passionate about enjoying a museum and art exhibit.” Although not an artist himself, John Mica was also crafty about getting what he wanted; he even cadged old wood and half-used paint to revamp his college fraternity at the University of Florida. “He had spotted a carved cameo that he found for our mother,” recalled Dan Mica, who was also a congressman from Florida, albeit on the other side of the aisle. “He sold a quart of blood to buy it.”

On a recent tour of his Rayburn office, John Mica displayed both modesty and pride when showing off his old master Italian drawings, with a Miro and a Calder nearby. He has no air of aficionado, more a humble hobbyist, speaking authoritatively if awkwardly. (“There are no introverts in the public arena, but he’s reserved as well as outgoing,” explained Oberstar.) His wife, Pat, toiled away on a computer in a tiny space off his main room—“I keep my wife in the closet,” Mica joked. She knows better, she said, than to stop her husband when he’s determined.

He stopped at his first-ever purchase, a woodcut by Georges Rouault, and admired the artist’s two clowns. “He’s very intense,” Mica said. “And probably because I’m color-blind, I love the intensity.”

The “neatest thing” about being in Congress, Mica said, is being a custodian of the people’s treasures, however temporarily. “I get to see what the oldest books we have are. Bay of Psalms!” he said, noting a rare volume from the 1640s. “I mean, that stuff turns me on, when you stop and think that we have copies of the first books printed in the United States.”

He paused and smiled. “Some people drink, chase women, golf. I like art, architecture, a few antiques,” Mica said flatly. “Everybody has their own thing. And this is mine.”

Man on years-long mission

Two matching statues confront visitors to the Apex building, and on each pedestal, a muscly figure, straining to rein in a horse. They are titled “Man Controlling Trade.”

Up two flights in a well-preserved, walnut-paneled elevator car, Leibowitz, the agency chairman, explained how his role has put him at odds with someone he admires. “I have a lot of respect for Chairman Mica. He has a vision. I happen to disagree with that,” he said.

The top commissioner rattled off the agency’s accomplishments, including the establishment of the do-not-call registry, a program under which telemarketers are banned from dialing about 200 million phone numbers listed. These civil servants police credit card fraud, Google privacy intrusions and Countrywide’s lending practices.

“Of course, we could do what we’re doing in a different building,” Leibowitz said. “Having said that, when a building is built for one of America’s most trusted agencies, and we have been in it for 75 years . . . why would you want to move us out?”

Mica’s mission also has rattled the District’s congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, who has a strong voice on a key subcommittee in Mica’s panel. Her own failed effort to get a science museum focused on human health “broke my heart,” she recalled, questioning why this project should have better prospects. She objected mostly to knowing little about Mica’s plans, except that he wants to “evict” federal workers. Norton noted that the federal government rents so many square feet in privately owned buildings that she doesn’t want, after all the displacements and shuffles, the federal government to lease more space.

And her concerns are based most of all in frugality, not favoritism. “I don’t care anything about the FTC. I don’t know anything about the FTC. I don’t know anything about what they do and any particulars, except as the average American or average member of Congress knows,” Norton said.

“At first people heard about that, they thought Mica must know somebody at the gallery, or there must be some hanky-panky. I’m convinced that’s not the case,” Norton said. “I think he has spent some time there, thinks they need added space.”

What happens next depends on how persuasive Mica can be.

He can make it happen right away if he can get the General Services Administration and the FTC on board. He can also force the FTC out if he wins a vote in the Senate Environment and Public Works committee, which is less likely with the Democrats in power, he thinks. But if the GOP wins the Senate in 2012, he will probably get what he wants, having signaled this as his No. 1 priority. Last week, he met with commissioners, who he said were cordial — and, it would seem, cornered. “I saw a flicker of understanding in some of their eyes,” Mica said afterward.

He has been on this mission for five years, but Mica insists any glory in winning will not accrue to him personally. He is not erecting some pharaoh-scale temple to himself. “Nobody’s going to remember John Mica in the scheme of things,” he said. “I’ll pass an FAA bill that lasts for four years. I’ll pass a transportation bill that may last for six years. I think this is something generational that you can leave for people. Not for me, I’ll be gone.”