Friday, December 12, 2008

A Monument to Mediocrity

During my life I have had the pleasure of visiting numerous monuments, including the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, and the San Jacinto Monument. Some were more impressive and moving than others.

I intend to never visit the Capitol Visitor Center, which by all descriptions is nothing but a monument to political pork and undeserved self-aggrandizing. This monument to Congress cost $621 million to build (more than double the original budget), and took twice as long to build as planned. According to the US News and World Report, even one unidentified Democrat calls it a "A beautiful disaster." Here is how US News describes this monument to government largess:

Built underground on three levels, the center is awash in autumn sunlight thanks to its six skylights, some with views of the Capitol dome.

Its treasures include an 11-foot model of the dome, the plaster model used to create the Statue of Freedom that rests atop the dome, and the Lincoln catafalque that has supported the remains of Abraham Lincoln and other presidents.

I really don't mean to be cynical, but plaster models don't seem like "treasures" to me.

For history buffs, there are more artifacts, such as George Washington's letter to Congress announcing victory at Yorktown at the end of the Revolutionary War, Thomas Jefferson's letter to lawmakers asking them to fund the Lewis and Clark expedition, and John F. Kennedy's speech vowing that the country would put a man on the moon.

Wow. For $621 million I get to see these letters. I can only imagine what Congress could let me see if they spent $5 trillion. Maybe they could bring George Washington or Thomas Jefferson back from the dead and learn some lessons about the proper role of government.

For political junkies, there are touch-screen quizzes to test your knowledge of Congress—and two small theaters to watch floor proceedings, courtesy of C-SPAN. People can identify their elected representative by typing in their home address.

Now this is really great. Somebody can visit this center, type in their address, and find out who their Congressman is. Maybe, and this is admittedly a stretch on my part, if they don't know who their Congressman is, they shouldn't be going to Washington to find out. Maybe if they are that uninformed they should spend some time boning up on the Constitution. And won't they be proud when they find out that it only cost $621 million for them to learn the name of their Congressman?

There's also a stirring 13-minute orientation film that captures the beauty and diversity of the country's landscapes and cityscapes and details the role of Congress as the second of three equal branches of government.

I am not a professional photographer, but I have a strong suspicion that I can produce a "stirring 13-minute orientation film" for a lot less than $621 million. And what does the "diversity of the country's landscapes and cityscapes" have to do with Congress? Did Congress create the nation's landscapes and cityscapes?

The center's largest space is called Emancipation Hall in honor of the slaves who built the Capitol by clearing the grounds, quarrying stone, sawing timber, and performing other tasks. The hall contains 23 statues meticulously moved in from the Capitol's Statuary Hall. A 24th, a likeness of Helen Keller, the blind author and educator from Alabama, is due to arrive this spring.
Slavery was a horrible institution, and is the blackest mark in American history. But to devote significant space of this center to "the slaves who built the Capitol" is nothing more than appeasement. The construction of the Capitol is hardly an important part of American or Congressional history. And what does Helen Keller have to do with the Capitol or Congress?

In some ways, this monstrosity (did I mention that it cost $621 million to build?) is a fitting tribute to Congress. They spend like drunken sailors on everything from Wall Street bailouts to farm subsidies to fruit fly research, so why shouldn't they spend a fortune on themselves? Why shouldn't they build a monument to mediocrity?

If reading about this kind of porcine spending gives you the jollies, check out the 2008 Congressional Pig Book Summary, a report put out by Citizens Against Government Waste.

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