Cost questions still swirl about Senate's new office building

They have called it a Taj Mahal, a Versailles, a -boondoggle, a marble barn, a gilded castle, the most expensive government building in history. And that's just what the senators have to say about their own new Philip A. Hart Memorial Office Building.

The white marble mega-monument which opened Monday has gone from an original cost of $48 million to $137.7 million in the eight years it's taken to build it. Even George M. White, architect of the Capitol, who helped design the building, acknowledges that only one-third of its 1 million square feet is usable office space. As architect of the Capitol, Mr. White is responsible for the structural, mechanical, and domestic care and maintenance, as well as the operation, of the Capitol group of buildings.

Some senate experts estimate that before every inch of the building is finished and furnished, its cost could rise another $32.6 million, to over $165 million. When estimates for related remodeling, redecorating, and long-range staff expansion are added, the cost could soar to half a billion dollars.

The press was allowed a ''premature'' mini-tour of the controversial building before it opened, conducted by Mr. White. What they saw was a nine-story building rising on Capitol Hill right next to the Dirksen office building. Gleaming white Vermont marble, 8,961 tons of it, sheathes not only the outside but the inside as well: An interior atrium that stretches the length of a basketball court and the height of a corn silo is also marble covered. The building even has a marble marquee.

The atrium, which a Senate Appropriations Committee spokesman calls ''nine floors of air that looks like an airplane hangar,'' is paved with rose marble from Tennessee. Pedestrian walkways span the narrow canyons that run the full length of the building on each side of the atrium.

Reporters glimpsed a typical ''model suite'' for the 50 senators and staff who, embarrassed over the cost, were balking about moving in after the election. The glimpse revealed two king-size senators' offices with towering 16-foot ceilings and views. In contrast, the staff is to be quartered in adjacent double-decked rooms with eight-foot ceilings, connected duplex style with interior stairways.

Sen. William Proxmire (D) of Wisconsin, who has opposed the Hart building from the first blueprint, says, ''It stands for self-serving waste of the most outrageous kind. It's something that will make senators more comfortable and perhaps make operations more impressive. But it certainly is wholly unnecessary in having an effective US Senate. I can't think of anything in that building that is likely to improve the performance of this body in any other way.''

Proxmire in July asked his colleagues, ''At a time when President Reagan is vetoing appropriations for important payback programs to help the depressed housing industry, for aid to the poor, and for postal subsidies for our veterans , charities, and churches, how can the Senate condone this cavalier approach to our own expenditures?''

Architect White defends the Hart building: ''This is like a major corporate headquarters building. . . . Nevertheless, we have done it for the same comparable amount of money. We built a little more quality into it because it's my view and the view of many others that buildings built here on the Hill are made to last for 100 years. And they're buildings for the institution, for the institution of Congress. . . . Senators may come and go, but the institution remains, and the need for the use of the building remains.''

Some members of the institution disagree, like Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan (D) of New York, who offered a resolution in May 1981 after the plastic sheathing covering the building for winter construction had been removed. The resolution suggested that since removal of the sheathing revealed ''a building whose banality is exceeded only by its expense,'' the sheathing should be restored.

Mr. White says, ''If you were to build the Supreme Court Building today it would cost more than this building. Let's talk oranges compared to oranges. . . . Let me ask you how much the Washington monument cost per square foot.''

While the cost of building the Washington monument in today's dollars could be debated along with how many angels can dance on the head of its pin-shaped top, the cost of the Hart monument is clear. The American Institute of Architects estimates current commercial construction costs in Washington at $54 to $65 per square foot, depending on the height of the building. (District law bans any building over eleven stories.) The nine-story Hart building divides out to $137.70 per square foot, more than double the commercial cost. Architect White protests that this figure includes architects' fees ($6 million) and administration costs, and that a more realistic estimate would be ''only $110 to

White says the original $48 million estimate for the building was ''unfortunate.'' It was hurriedly arrived at under pressure from Congress. He says the ''meaningful'' estimate was the later, $85 million figure, and that the bulk of the increase to $137.7 million since then is due to inflation.

White says with pride that he brought in the Hart building under budget, for million cost cap put on the building by the Senate in 1979. He further emphasized repeatedly in a Monitor interview that the building would be totally finished (though not furnished) when it opened. But during the press tour he admitted to reporters that only the 50 sneators' suites would be finished, leaving a considerable amount of other space still incomplete. And furnishing and staffing the Hart is another, expensive story.

The Senate Appropriations Committee recieved a request for $9.5 million to buy the modular furniture needed to harmonize with the design of the building. But with the congressional elections near, the Senate Rules Committee voted against the new furniture and instructed senators to bring their old furniture along with them.

A spokesman for the Appropriations Committee, which has been monitoring the cost of the building, suspects that the $32.6 million worth of deleted options may yet reappear. He points to the language of a committee report on the building which says: If th items that were deducted from the scopt of the work are to be accomplished at a later date, then further appropriations are necessary." This effectively gets around the cost cap. "The furniture was knocked out of th apporpriations now, which doesn't mean it won't come back later," he says.

The controversy over the Hart's price tag has been building for some time. It bubbled up last summer over the prososed $750,00 gym, which we killed after a public uproar - the sort of uproar that could well erupt now over the total building. For, as one highly placed Senate authority suggests, "When you talk about the total cost to the public of the Hart building, you can make a good case that the eventual bill may be as much as half a billion dollars."

He estimates that the building itself, by the time all the furniture is in place and every inch of the structure finished, will have cost $150 million. He believes it is possible that another $50 million could be spent over several years on remodeling (possibly gutting and redesigning) and redecorating the Dirksen and Russell office buildings. And because every senator will have more office space, and more space seems inevitably to mean more staff, he foreses an additional outlay of as much as $300 million to hire more staff over the next 10 years or so.

"There is an inexorable movement toward more and more staff," he points out. He estimates an additional 1,000 staff members in the next decade at an average salary of $25,000 to $30,000 each (including benefits). Sen. John H. Chafee (R) of Rhode Island noted during a floor debate on the hart building that Senate staff had doubled in the '70s. "Experience has clearly shown us," he said, "that staff rises to meet available space and experience is cleat that in giving the Senate more space . . . we will fill it. That is what we do. We just add more and more staff." Staff has gone from 2,500 in 1957 to 7,000 in 1982.

Lack of space was the origin of the Hart building, back in the late '60s; by 1974 the cry went out that senators and their staffs were squashed into such constricted quarters that a new office building was needed. Seventy-two members of the Senate had earlier testified to that; 24 committees and subcommittees had petitioned the Public Works Committee for extra room.

In 1974 the Senate appropriated $48 million, the estimated cost of a new office building. By 1975 the appropriation was $69 million and later that year rose to $85 million. By 1978 it was $122 million, by 1979 soaring to $179 million. That year, the General Accounting Office (GAO) estimated the total building cost at $230 million. After a raging and acerbic three-hour debate in the Senate that July on whether to finish the building, a "ceiling" was put on the appropriation, at $137.7 million.

To keep the cost of the building under that marble ceiling, the Senate Office Building Commission agreed to delete a series of low-priority items. Among them: a $736,00 gym (the Senate's third); a $1.2 million mutlimedia heating room; and to Learn this year' as the building approached completing, that a4chitect White had somehow managed to effect savings of $4.2 million on the previously escalating, withoug ant debate or vote in the full Senate, that the $4.2 million saved be spent on those very items deleted by the full Senate three years earlir , as well as several other items such as auxiliary space carpeting ($227,000) and vertical blinds ($167,700).

There was a public uproar in early August when the Seante voted 98 to 0 against the gym. It also voted to close down a small "physical fitness facility" in the Dirksen building, snapping a camp towel at Senator Proxmire, its main user, and avid critic of the Hart gym. That left onlt the full gym in the Russell building with its swimming pool, exercise equipment, and message tables. It was Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee, a member of the building commission, who let the Senate team again at the gym: "We're going to kill that snake one more time," SenatorBaker said.

But the cost of the Hart building, like that snake, keeps gliding back under the tent flap. It is impossible to tell exactly how much more will be spent over the next few years, or where all the $4.2 million savings on the building have come from.

When even the Senate fiscal experts are still unsure how the savings came about, the average taxpayer may be forgiven for wondering how an exact price tag will be affixed to the building. Back in the vitriolic 1979 debate on the building, Senator Chafee pointed out that within 10 hours on July 18, the alleged cost of the building had mysteriously jumped $5 million, from $137 million to $142 million; it was later cut back to the ''stripped down'' $137.7 million figure when items such as wood paneling, a rooftop dining room, a $400, 000 art gallery, and the controversial gym were either deleted or delayed, depending on the interpretation. (But a rooftop tennis court was just added.)

''This is a game of attrition - they will give up for now but they'll be back to nibble at you,'' sighs the Senate committee staff insider who has watched the building grow. ''They'' are a changing cast of senators over the years who favor expansion, and the architect of the Capitol. At present, there are still several unresolved questions about space and money: Will the funds from the now moribund gym be returned as savings to the taxpayer, or will this vast (60 feet by 120 feet) space with its 25-foot ceilings eventually be used for another purpose, say an additional hearing or reception room, at an added cost? Will the once-envisioned $1.4 million rooftop dining facility take shape in another form, perhaps in a more lavish expansion of the cafeteria from the adjoining Dirksen building? Nearly $2.2 million has been earmarked for the cafeteria expansion and other alterations in a separate request to the Appropriations Committee.

''There's no doubt about the fact that (the Capitol architect and his staff) are playing all sorts of games on this,'' the Senate staff member charges. ''They're playing games in the sense of having in-house people do work instead of going to out-of-house contractors. By using in-house people to do the work, it will cost less on the surface.'' He is referring to Mr. White's use of some of his 1,973 employees to work on the auxiliary space, which White says was done ''after the savings.'' Are any of the senators going to check on the rules of the games? ''I don't know,'' the same aide says. ''I know at this point, no one is making a crusade out of it. Why push that stone up the hill one more time? . . . The building is sitting there now. But it might be a good idea to get GAO to do an audit. . . .''

The problem of space was the one upon which the massive superstructure of the Hart building was erected: Architect White says that the General Services Administration, which provides housing for federal agencies, estimates the commercial standard is 150 square feet per employee, but that Senate staffers have had only half that. The Hart building brings staff space up to par, he says.

Four, rather than one, general contractors were used for various sections of the Hart building in a ''phased bidding'' plan that extended over four years and meant that no single contractor had to bear the overall responsibility. White maintains that this ''phased construction,'' rather than adding to the cost of the building, saved money in an inflating market. An American Institute of Architects spokesman says this approach might save money over a short period of time but that ''three to four years is unheard of in most construction unless you're building the city of Abu Dhabi.''

Senator Chafee, who lambasted what he called the building's ''scandalous lack of planning,'' pointed out that three years (1972-75) had elapsed ''while time was spent defining the building.'' Architect White has complained that initially the Senate just asked how much a new office building would cost, giving him no idea of size, shape, or staff requirements. ''It was like saying, 'How much does an automobile cost?' '' ''I don't have any ax to grind except to tell you the facts,'' says White. ''I don't have a side. It isn't my building. I just work here.''

When White was asked whether he expected a public backlash over the cost of the building, he answered, ''How should I know? I'm not a politician. But I'll tell you from a construction standpoint, it's kind of like having a baby. When you're 8 1/2 months pregnant, there's nothing you can do but have the baby . . . the building was begun about eight years ago and the only thing you can do now is finish it . . . and finish it as rapidly as you can before it costs more.'' In summary he says, ''There will be no more moneys spent to complete the building - that's what you keep asking - the building will be completed for $137 million.''

But even when the building is completed, will that be the end? A glance at the long-range architectural plans for the Capitol suggests not. Today, the Hart building. Tomorrow, Square 74. That is the designation of the next Senate office building space now waiting in the wings. (There are five more slated for the House side.) When the old buildings now on the site are razed, ''there is no plan to build anything,'' says White. ''I can't imagine that taking place . . . if something like that should occur, it would be 40-50 years from now.'' Senate skeptics say it is worth noting that only a 10-year period elapsed between the late '50s when the Dirksen office building was completed and the late '60s when the Senate began campaigning for the Hart building.

Finally, the embattled former chairman of the building commission, Sen. Bennett Johnston (D) of Louisiana, sums up the situation. His position now is: ''. . . I think maybe the whole Hart Senate office building was a gigantic mistake, simply because of the mood of the country. But if that mistake was made , it was made a long time ago, and it was not made by this Senate. If I am still in the Senate when it is completed - and I hope I am here long enough - I doubt if it will be too many years before it will be completed, and unquestionably at a greater cost.''

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.