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2018 Worth Bingham Prize winners David McSwane, left, and Andrew Chavez, right, with Clara Bingham Lisa Abitbol

Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism

New Building May Top Pentagon Cost


Six-part series

In this, the fifth of six articles, Worth Bingham of The Courier-Journal and Times Washington Bureau reveals the amazingly high cost of new Congressional buildings.

Part 1: Our Costly Congress

Part 2: Expense Facts Compared To Iceberg — Most Hidden

Part 3: All Is Not Passing Of Laws

Part 4: Free-Mail Privilege Proves A Boon To Incumbents

Part 6: Financial Reports Hide Actual Spending

Washington, July 25 — If one were to judge by the fulmination uttered on Capitol Hill about the high price of the Federal Government, the conclusion could only be that congressmen are acutely conscious.

But the fact seems inescapable that next denouncing the high cost of government, Congress likes spending money on itself best.

In the past 10 years alone, the Congress quietly spent $200,000,000 on buildings for the legislators themselves — average of $372,000 a lawmaker — and the end is not in sight.

Rising now from a deep pit near Independence Avenue is the colossus of recent Capitol Hill buildings, the “Additional House Office Building.” No one really knows what it will cost because the prices of many things that have gone into the building have been lumped in the other building projects.

It May Be Biggest

It seems safe to say that when the mammoth structure is completed and furnished sometime in 1964, Congress II have provided itself with the most expensive building on the face of the earth — far outstripping the $83,000,000 Pentagon which is the biggest building on earth.

Ascertaining the cost of buildings on Capitol Hill has turned into a grueling’ game of hide-and-seek between reporters and George Stewart, the capitol architect who administers Congress’ vast building program.

Stewart, who is really not an architect at all, but a former Republican congressman from Delaware, was appointed to his lifetime job by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956 with the enthusiastic support of former Speaker Sam Rayburn, a Democrat.

From time to time Stewart issues cost figures on his latest building projects, but reporters have learned to distrust what they see. Take the newest House Office Building. The overall cost was given as around $64,000,000 in 1959. This seemed a whopping figure, especially when compared with the cost of the first House Office Building — $4,800,000 — and the $7,800,000 Second House Office Building.

But it was soon discovered that the $64,000,000 figure was a fairly modest one when compared with the true cost of the new building. Conveniently left out of the estimate was $8,000,000 for architectural and engineering fees, the cost of buying, clearing, and grading the site, the expense of building a sewer to contain a creek that flows beneath the building, and the cost of test borings, soil analyses, and other work.

Stewart’s harried administrative assistant explained that the $8,000,000 was left out “to simplify the bookkeeping.” Since then over $6,000,000 has been added to the cost to build a subway from the new building to the Capitol and additional millions will be spent on furnishing the four-story structure.

David Wise of the New York Herald Tribune won one hide-and-seek prize in 1960 when he discovered that senators were planning to build a $40,000 swimming pool behind unmarked doors in the Old Senate Office Building.  Money for the project came from a leftover appropriation for “rusty plumbing.”

House Has No Pool

Employees of the “Senate baths,” as officials prefer to call their new pool, include four masseurs, who are on the architect’s payroll.  Names of the “physical therapists” are “classified,” but during the Legislative Branch appropriations hearings this year their combined annual salaries of $24,530 were revealed for the first time.

House members have no swimming pool, but they can take sun-lamp treatments, frolic on a canvas trampolin, play table tennis and paddleball, work out on reducing machines, bake in a hot room, relax in a steam room, and lounge in a piping-hot therapeutic bath behind a door marked “Private” in the basement of the new House Office Building. The House gymnasium is supervised by a “sports recreation leader” who is paid $7,095 a year.

Will the newest building contain a pool? Stewart says no, but his administrative assistant is not so sure. The final decision will come from a trio of men who make up what is known as the House Office Building Commission —  House Speaker John McCormack, and Representatives Carl Vinson (D., Ga.) James C. Auchincloss (R., N. J.).

Speaker McCormack, who succeeded Sam Rayburn as chairman of the commission, has shown no desire to down on Congress’ spending on itself to lift the secrecy that surrounds so many of the housekeeping activities Capitol Hill.

In the Senate, Senator Mike Mansfield (D., Mont.) augments his power as majority leader with the chairmanship the powerful Rules Committee, the housekeeping body which also oversee members’ expense accounts.

Mansfield Sensitive

Although the architect takes the brunt of criticism for the lavish buildings going up on the Hill, it is the secrecy-loving Rules Committee which is ultimately responsible for what Stewart does or does not build on the Senate side of the Capitol. In recent months Mansfield has become extremely sensitive to criticism of the building program.

A case in point is the plush new “hideaway” offices which the Senate provided for itself by extending the east front of the Capitol 32 feet at a cost of $11,825,000. Just off the Senate floor where most of the “hideaway” office located, a rope barrier bars the public from corridors leading to the unmark< office doors.

Since Senator William Proxmire (I Wis.) attacked the second offices, which were handed out as seniority plums, as“an example of the extravagance the country’s legislative body is pampering itself with,” several senators have indicated they’d just as soon keep the occupancy list secret.

Mansfield is the man who assigned the w offices to his colleagues, but he is not about to upset the applecart. When a porter claimed that he was getting the runaround on occupancy of the hideaways, Manfield said: “Well, you’ll get a runaround from me, too. It’s not my policy to give out information on other senators.”

More Offices Voted

Mansfield’s reticence became more understandable last month when it developed that the Rules Committee had quietly approved spending $192,000 to construct and furnish 17 more offices in abandoned tunnel which leads from the Capitol to the old Senate Office Building without telling anyone who the offices were for.

When Stewart appeared before a Senate appropriations subcommittee to k for the money, Senator Mike Monroney (D., Okla.) asked bluntly: Who proposes to use these rooms?”

“Senator,” Stewart hedged uncomfortably, “as far as I know, that is up to the Senate Rules Committee for allocation.” Then Steward apparently decided he had had enough of the secrecy business, and leveled with Monroney: “it will be for senators,” he said firmly, “that is my understanding.”

Senator Leverett Saltonstall (R., Mass.) balked. “I would hope that we would not do this this year,” he said. “We have spent great deal of money on ourselves, and a great deal of criticism has been made of it … and I would hope personally that this matter would not be pressed on the committee this year.

Steed Offers Reason

Of course there is more than one way 1ooking at the building that is going on on Capitol Hill. Listen to Representative Tom Steed (D., Okla.), chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee which handles the legislative budget:

“Most office buildings are built to last about 64 years, but ours are supposed to last 1,000. That’s why they’re so expensive. More people visit the Capitol than any other place in the world — up to 41,000 a day. After all, it is the shrine of liberty. You visit the White House, but you make a pilgrimage to the Capitol. We have found that we can’t think in terms of dollars and cents the way we do on other bills; we’re like priests who have to preserve their temple…”

The thousand years may be up before you know it. Already there is talk about building a new streamlined Capitol a few blocks east of the present one. Assistant Capitol Architect Mario E. Campioli has suggested that the present Capitol could then be “a ceremonial structure, a museum, a building of interest.”

Stewart has denied that there are any plans for such a building, but skeptics are not convinced.

Amendment Recalled

They remember how Rayburn rose before an unsuspecting House on March 18, 1955, and offered as an amendment to an unrelated appropriations bill a provision to provide a $2,000,000 down payment on the newest House Office Building.

Representative Clare Hoffman (R. Mich.) tried to make a point of order — the amendment was legislation on an appropriations bill, a procedure forbidden under the rules of the House. But the chair, occupied by Rayburn’s friend Clark Thompson (D., Tex.) refused to recognize Hoffman, and the Rayburn amendment whisked through the House without the benefit of hearings.

Such practices can become infectious. Capitol Courier, a newspaper published by the students of the Capitol Page School, noted recently that “a topic of much discussion among pages has been the proposed construction or renovation of a building for use as a dormitory for pages. This plan would improve study and living conditions and would provide many services not available to pages in their present living quarters. A laundry, a gym, a swimming pool…all these have been suggested as parts of the proposed dormitory.”

Copyright, 1962, by The Courier-Journal