WASHINGTON, DC—Calling the current U.S. Capitol "inadequate and obsolete," Congress will relocate to Charlotte or Memphis if its demands for a new, state-of-the-art facility are not met, leaders announced Monday.
"Don't get us wrong: We love the drafty old building," Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-IL) said. "But the hard reality is, it's no longer suitable for a world-class legislative branch. The sight lines are bad, there aren't enough concession stands or bathrooms, and the parking is miserable. It hurts to say, but the capitol's time has come and gone."
"If we want to stay competitive, we need to upgrade," said House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-MO), who has proposed a new $3.5 billion capitol on the site of the current edifice. "Look at British Parliament. Look at the Vatican. Respected institutions in their markets. But without modern facilities, they've been having big problems attracting top talent."
Its cornerstone laid in 1793 by President Washington, the capitol has been built, rebuilt, extended, and restored countless times over the past 209 years. Legislators say another multimillion-dollar renovation is not an acceptable alternative to a new building.
"How many times can you put a fresh coat of paint over an old, broken-down horse?" asked Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), co-chair of the Senate Relocation Subcommittee. "We need a building that befits our status as the nation's number-one democratically elected legislative body. And if D.C. isn't willing to provide that, I can think of plenty of other cities that would be more than happy to."
The leading candidates for a possible congressional relocation are Charlotte and Memphis, both of which have long sought a major organization to raise their national profile. San Francisco civic leaders have also lobbied hard, offering to finance a $4 billion Pac Bell Capitol Building using a combination of private corporate funds (40 percent), a county sales tax (35 percent), and a local cigarette tax (25 percent). Dallas, Seattle, and Toronto have also been mentioned as long shots.
Demonstrating its commitment to "stay in Washington if at all possible," Congress has invited more than a dozen architectural firms to submit proposals for a new D.C. capitol. Among the early favorites is the ambitiously titled "Halls Of Power," a retro-futuristic design by the Kansas City architectural firm of Hellmuth, Obata, and Kassabaum. The Halls Of Power would feature a retractable rotunda for daytime sessions, a Dancing Waters fountain in the front courtyard, and 55 more luxury boxes than the current building.
"This is just the kind of thing we need to stay competitive in today's lawmaking environment," said agent Barry Halperin, who represents many prominent government officials, including Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-VT) and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. "Washington can no longer afford to ignore the fact that visitor attendance has dropped every year since 1989. Our elected officials don't like coming to this building and, clearly, neither do their constituents."
Experts attribute the decline in congressional attendance to a number of factors, including increased home viewership of legislative activities on C-SPAN, with which Congress signed an exclusive 20-year, $360 million broadcast pact in 1984. It is not known how a new capitol building would affect the terms of that soon-to-expire contract, but Congress is expected to restructure the deal to increase its share of revenues and secure possible advertising rights, regardless of whether it opts for rebuilding or relocation.
According to the lawmakers' constituents, the capitol is not the problem.
"Sure, the capitol's a little beat-up, but it's got its charms," said Geoff Lapointe, a Glendale, CA, voter. "The real problem is the legislators. Back in the old days, you had big stars like John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Who've they got today? Evan Bayh? Paul Sarbanes? Who's gonna get excited about those guys?"
Lapointe said he is "fed up" with the legislators and their demands.
"Those guys are all just a bunch of spoiled, overpaid crybabies," Lapointe said. "All they want is money—they don't care about all the hardworking people who pay their salaries. Look at 'em: When's the last time you saw them acting like a team? They can take their capitol and shove it."