They call it a great community service for a bunch of kids. They won’t tell you the cost.
It’s no secret that being a member of Congress carries a lot of perks. But should special use of the Capitol and beefed-up staffing to provide “VIP” treatment for more than a thousand home-state youngsters and others—on a day when the building is normally closed to visitors—be one of them?
Whatever the right answer, that’s exactly what happened on Sunday.
That’s when Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn.—recently rated the House’s No. 1 defender of taxpayers by the National Taxpayers Union based on 2011 roll call votes on fiscal issues—welcomed 1,650 youngsters from Tennessee to the Capitol for his annual AAA Safety Patrol Trip. Also along was a group from the Knox County, Tenn., Sheriff’s Department.
Duncan’s office says the event was a continuation of an annual tradition, which dates to when his father served in Congress before him, and similarly hosted the safety patrol every year.
All told, this Duncan production has been going on for more than a half-century.
But not everyone is so positive about it. Some employees at the Capitol who were among the guides, Capitol Visitor Center restaurant employees, and other staffers brought in on their day off to accommodate the group, expressed disgruntlement. Sources who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution from their superiors said some of the workers that day were paid overtime.
Efforts by National Journal Daily on Wednesday to get cost estimates from various House officials, including Capitol Police, tied to Duncan’s special event were not met with much success. And Duncan’s office said it didn’t know.
“There is no cost to our personal office; our staff volunteers to come in and help. I don’t have any information on costs to other entities like the Capitol Guide Service,” said Duncan spokesman Patrick Newton.
He added that “this tour is a 56-year tradition that has allowed many, many thousands of 10-year-olds to come to Washington and tour the Capitol who might not otherwise have the chance.”
Duncan’s press release about the event makes a point of noting that he arranges this special tour of the Capitol on a Sunday, “when the building is normally closed to visitors.”
After being divided into three groups, the guests receive a guided tour of the Capitol building and are seated on the floor of the House of Representatives. Duncan spends about an hour with each group, showing them the House chamber, taking their questions, and demonstrating the voting machines, according to his release.
“It is a view very few visitors to the Capitol will ever experience,” Duncan explains, adding, “This is the one time of year when I return to Washington early, on a Sunday, so these young people can be treated as VIPs.”
That VIP service also included having Capitol Visitor Center guides come in and having the visitor-center restaurant serving on a day when it usually is closed.
Asked about the cost of doing all of this, visitor center spokesman Tom Fontana responded in an e-mail, “The role of the Architect of the Capitol is to support congressional operations 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, and these responsibilities are covered in our annual appropriations and constitute no additional cost to taxpayers.” He did not provide information about exactly how much is set aside in those annual appropriations for such activities.
Salley Wood, the deputy staff director at the House Administration Committee, answered similarly: “Accommodating member and constituent requests to visit the Capitol off hours is not uncommon. Legislative branch agencies plan and budget accordingly.”
A Capitol Police spokeswoman did not respond to inquiries about whether officers were called in for additional security staffing. And a spokeswoman for the Office of the House Sergeant at Arms confirmed that one of its employees, from the special events section, came in on Sunday, but said that there was no overtime cost involved.
Given the lack of cost detail, Pete Sepp, executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union, refrained from criticizing the special event held by the lawmaker whom his group had dubbed the taxpayers’ biggest defender in 2011. But as for the claim from Fontana that the Architect of the Capitol is budgeted to provide support for congressional operations 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, Sepp said: “If true, that might mean there are no extra costs to taxpayers involved here, but perhaps Congress could review whether such a policy is fiscally necessary only for certain legislative and security functions.”
This article appears in the June 7, 2012, edition of NJ Daily.