The U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Architectural and engineering… (Matthew Cavanaugh / EPA )
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Capitol, one of the nation's most cherished monuments to democracy, could become a symbol of the sorry state of Uncle Sam's checkbook.
So warn architect and engineering groups in response to proposed budget cuts for the Capitol's maintenance, including the first major face-lift of the iconic dome in more than 50 years.
"The U.S. Capitol is not merely Congress' work space; it is also an attraction for millions of visitors from around the world, a shining example of American architecture — and home to priceless works of art — and a potential target for those who wish to do us harm," the American Institute of Architects, American Society of Civil Engineers and other groups said in a letter this week to congressional leaders.
"Delaying or canceling needed improvements will make the Capitol complex less safe, harm the functioning of Congress and endanger our country’s cultural heritage," they added.
A House-approved $7.5-million cut to this year’s $36-million budget for operations and maintenance of the Capitol threatens to stop work on a multimillion-dollar dome-restoration project.
The Architect of the Capitol, which is making $19 million in repairs to the lower portion of the dome this year, requested an additional $61 million for the next phase of work, including fixing cracks, replacing or repairing decorative pieces, resealing it and repainting it. Of concern are water leaks inside the structure.
Members of NACE International, formerly the National Assn. of Corrosion Engineers, who took a tour of the Capitol earlier this year, note on their website that the Architect of the Capitol has found water to be "the enemy of the Capitol dome."
"Water infiltrates the dome through pin holes in the Statue of Freedom, the base of the Cupola, and the balustrade," the group noted.
The cast-iron dome, completed in 1863, underwent its last major renovation in 1959 and 1960.
"I'd rather the dome remain a monument to our nation's greatness than become a symbol for shortsighted austerity," Rep. Norm Dicks of Washington state, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said during the recent debate on the spending bill.
The Senate still must act. Through a spokesman, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who chairs the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Architect of the Capitol budget, made no commitment on funding. But the spokesman said the senator has been lobbied "by every entity whose budget is under the committee’s jurisdiction, including the architects and engineers" and is working "to hold down government spending while funding needed priorities."
The architects and engineers said that deferring maintenance would lead to higher taxpayer costs "as defects worsen and repair costs rise due to inflation. As any homeowner knows, delaying needed repairs only costs more in the long run."
Scaffolding was put in place on the dome last fall; it is covered by a white scrim to allow the scaffolding to blend in with the building. Renovation of the Capitol dome skirt will be completed this fall, with the scaffolding scheduled to come down before construction begins on the stands for January's presidential inauguration.