Visitors to our nation’s capital can now see personally what until now they could only imagine metaphorically — Congress pouring money down a hole.
The hole is in the historic East Lawn of the Capitol — that’s the Supreme Court side — and, my, what a hole it is: deep enough to house a three-story, 580,000-square-foot Visitor Center.
"Visitor" is slightly a misnomer because 30 percent of the space will be reserved for members of Congress in the form of offices, meeting rooms and TV studios. Congress has a way of absorbing amenities meant for the public — like all the on-street parking within several blocks of the Capitol — so that percentage may grow.
Indeed, that space has already grown in the sense that the general public will have been effectively evicted from the Capitol building, allowed in only with special permission or as part of a tour group.
The visitors’ part of the center will include a gift shop, cafeteria, exhibition space and what’s called a "Great Hall" that will function as a waiting room for tour groups entering the seat of their elected government.
You don’t have to be a Washington cynic to be skeptical of visitor centers. In the 1970s, the federal government decided to turn Union Station into a visitors’ center, the center of which was a giant pit in the floor of the elegant building that swallowed $48 million before the building was boarded up and left derelict after two years. After due consideration, the government spent $150 million more to turn it back into a railroad station with shops and restaurants and it has been a success ever since.
According to figures obtained by The Washington Post, the hole in the Capitol year is now projected to cost $558.6 million, $185 million more than planned, and open almost two years late instead of next month, also as planned.
The delays are blamed on bad weather, management failures and Congress’ tendency to fiddle with work in progress. Until the hole is filled up and sodded over, it is an instructive lesson in civics, especially when it dawns on the visitors that it’s their money going down that hole.