Monument to Excess

Another year, and a few more millions of taxpayer money thrown into the bunker that is supposed to be the U.S. Capitol’s new underground Visitor Center.

This lavish Taj Mahal, buried under the Capitol’s east front, was scheduled to be opened this month. But the Government Accountability Office’s new estimate for ribbon-cutting is Feb. 26, 2007.

The explanation: unanticipated work delays caused by lawmakers complaining that noise from the center’s construction disrupted the reveries in their Capitol hideaways, and alterations in the original building plans adding “expansion spaces” (more private offices) for the House and Senate.

New price tag: $559 million. That’s almost double the $265 million the Architect of the Capitol estimated when Congress approved the project back in 1999, and more than a fivefold increase from the modest project floated in 1995.

Some lawmakers admit they may have made a mistake in upping from $15,000 to $250,000 the amount that federal employees can charge on federal credit cards, without getting prior approval from superiors.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, says the measure, attached to a bill for Hurricane Katrina relief, was designed to improve government efficiency in dealing with crises. But he frets that federal auditors will soon uncover problems similar to those the last time the government gave out credit cards _ when bills rolled in for breast implants, personal computers and trips to brothels. Grassley says he’s going to try to cut the limit back to $50,000.


Look for Congress to streamline environmental reviews for public-works projects.

A GOP task force already was looking at how vital U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood-control projects have been tied up in endless red tape by federal environmental laws. Hurricane Katrina provided them with fresh ammunition.

Two projects aimed at protecting New Orleans from storm waters were scrapped in the last 30 years because of environmental lawsuits. The Sierra Club insists that the environmental laws weren’t at fault, but that these were frivolous projects. One proposal would have cut off Lake Ponchartrain from the ocean, supposedly killing the lake’s fishing industry.

Who do you want to believe: Congress or your lying eyes?

The Senate Budget Committee insists those eye-popping gasoline prices are not hitting record highs, contrary to media reports. The average $2.87 a gallon nationwide price is just under the $2.92 a gallon record hit in 1982 the panel says.

Those old enough to remember buying gas in 1982 will recall the top price per gallon was $1.38, but the Republicans on the panel say that taking into account the pace of inflation, that translates into $2.92 today.

Congress is porking out at an alarming rate. The watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste counted 13,997 pork-barrel projects approved by Congress last year _ compared to only 1,430 OK’d in 1995. What’s happened over the last decade is that lawmakers have lost any sense of shame promoting hometown projects.

Let the record show that it wasn’t John Roberts who filibustered the Senate Judiciary Committee considering his nomination to be chief justice of the United States. Senators spent so much time going on _ and on _ about their own views as to how the judiciary should operate, and asking interminable questions, that Roberts’ appearance seemed an irrelevancy.

According to a compilation by Senate aides of total minutes spoken, the loquacious Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., led the inquisitors, speaking 70 percent more words than Roberts spoke in response to him. Among Republicans, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, led the talkers, speaking 63 percent more words than Roberts said in response to him.

Only three senators _ Russell Feingold, D-Wis., Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa _ spent more of their time before the cameras listening instead of asking.

Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., who lost his oceanfront home to Katrina, says he’s not interested in the blame game or criticizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s sluggish response. “My mama don’t raise no idiot. I ain’t going to bite the hand that is trying to save me,” Lott said.

(Contact Lance Gay at GayL(at)