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Jewish World Review Aug. 31, 1999 /19 Elul, 5759

Morton Kondracke

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U.S. Capitol needs visitor's center -- soon -- IF YOU DO THE TOURIST THING in Washington, you know that you have to stand in line interminably to get into the Capitol -- steaming in summer, soaking in winter.

It shouldn't be that way, and it doesn't have to be. For years, Congress has been talking about building a visitor's center. There are plans for it. But it never seems to get started.

Tourist comfort is not the only impetus behind the project -- security is another. When a crazed gunman killed two Capitol police officers last July, congressional leaders all vowed to get on with the visitor's center, which would move screening for weapons outside the Capitol itself.

A year later, there has been some modest movement toward organizing further planning for the center, but no actual decisions on a time for ground-breaking. No one is sure that the center will ever be built.

The visitor's center has been in gestation for 10 years. In 1995, an elaborate design was developed for an underground facility beneath the Capitol's East Plaza.

The plaza, as you know if you've ever waited in line to cross it, is a vast asphalt former parking lot now blocked off to all but VIP traffic. It's empty and it's ugly.

If the visitor's center ever gets built, the plaza would be covered with lawns and gardens like the rest of the beautiful Capitol complex.

Underneath, according to the 1995 plan, there'd be a two-story main exhibition hall, two 250-seat auditoriums for viewing an orientation film, one 550-seat auditorium, two small assembly rooms, a 600-seat cafeteria, a gift shop and restrooms.

Instead of roasting or freezing outside while waiting the start of a tour, visitors could learn about the history of the Congress, how a law gets passed, how campaigns are conducted, maybe even how they're financed.

Properly executed with good videos and interactive media, all this could rival the Air and Space Museum or the FBI headquarters as a tourist magnet.

Despite the potential and the need, however, the project has been the victim of incessant turf wars, especially between several House committees that each insisted on sole control.

This year, the turf problem may have been solved by assignment of oversight to an 18-member Capitol Preservation Commission. Congress has appropriated $100 million for the center, but has actually released only $2.8 million to restudy the 1995 architectural plan.

In 1995, planners anticipated that the center could be completed by 2000. Now, optimists put the date at 2004 -- assuming that work actually starts next year.

If Congress needs an inspiration for getting on with it, it could look to the Texas Capitol extension in Austin, an elegant, four-story underground structure that was planned and built in six years.

In 1983, Texas got a wake-up call akin to last year's shooting: a fire in the lieutenant governor's office killed one person and might have destroyed the entire Capitol.

Everybody agreed that modernization was necessary, but that project lagged, too, until it acquired a spark plug in newspaper heiress Dealy Decherd Herndon, who became director of the State Preservation Board.

She worked relentlessly, legislative leaders pushed through a $188 million budget, and ground was broken in 1989. By 1995, Texas had a fully restored Capitol, a gleaming marble extension twice as big as the Capitol itself with two stories of office space, two for parking, a 350-seat auditorium, a cafeteria, a bookstore and a visitor's center.

Congress surely had an adequate wake-up call last July 24, when Russell Weston Jr. burst past a security checkpoint and shot Capitol Police Officer Jacob Chestnut in the back of the head as he was distracted by tourists seeking directions.

Weston made his way to the offices of House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and exchanged gunfire with Detective John Gibson, who was mortally wounded.

Congress mourned the two officers as family and reportedly has been generous in contributing to a fund to educate their children. The first anniversary of their deaths was mourned with another ceremony in the Capitol this year.

But a proper memorial would have been breaking ground for the visitor's center. After all, leaders have repeatedly declared that Capitol police ought not be tour guides, as Chestnut was when he was killed.

This project needs a spark plug like Texas had. The architect of the Capitol is the official nominally in charge, but he has other responsibilities to attend to.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss) had it right this summer when he said, "I feel like, if we don't go forward with this, next time we have an incident, somebody is going to ask, `Why wasn't something done about this?'"

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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©1999, NEA