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Beneath the grand chambers and marble anterooms of the Capitol lies an endless maze of backstage corridors. The building’s above-ground attractions may maintain a decorous calm, but the basement has the perpetual hum of a creaky old theater. Props of democracy clog the hallways—19th-century furniture stacked on its side, tour-guide costumes hanging in neat red rows, and piles of photocopied testimony from hearings gone by. Early in the morning, before the daily parade of schoolkids arrives to watch the republic in action, electricians, designers, and decorative plasterers weave their way through the tunnels, quietly making the legislative branch function.
In the very heart of the Capitol, in a gilded office with a marble fireplace and majestic views, you will find the wizard of this Oz. Many people do not know that one man—Alan M. Hantman—is in charge of maintaining not only the Constantino Brumidi frescoes and the luxurious Old Senate Chamber, but also the other 13 million square feet of the Capitol complex—real estate that includes the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court, and all of the congressional office buildings. Well off the tour-bus loop, the same domain encompasses one of the largest power plants in the country, on 1st Street SE, and a sea of greenhouses near the Blue Plains waste treatment plant in far Southeast.
Even though most locals never hear of the position, the Architect of the Capitol has been wielding tremendous power over D.C. residents and scores of employees since 1793. The Architect is exempt from local planning laws and has eminent domain over the Capitol’s ever-expanding properties. Even though he does not have to consult with them for his own projects, he sits on the D.C. Zoning Commission and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.
Oil portraits of previous Architects—icons of American architecture like William Thornton, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, and Charles Bulfinch—deck the walls of Hantman’s office. An outwardly affable man with a nervous smile, the 56-year-old Hantman is understandably pleased to be in the company of such greats. He merrily calls up historical anecdotes, like the one from 1854, when Thomas Ustick Walter decided the Capitol needed a new dome. Walter didn’t have to grovel before a bored committee to make it happen. He sketched a drawing and hung it on his wall. Within a matter of weeks, Congress granted his wish.
Hantman tells the story wistfully, acutely aware of how much the job has changed. “He got $100,000 just by putting it on the wall,” Hantman says. Today, “We’ve got quite a cycle to go through to get funds.”
The Architect’s job has always been a bifurcated one, comprising the duties of both master artist and head janitor. Hantman, who earns $125,900 a year, still oversees some of the country’s most sacred symbols—the Rotunda frieze, the Capitol dome, and the Freedom statue perched on top. But just as architects elsewhere have lost their dictatorial authority, the Architect of the Capitol’s office has become a lot more bureaucratic than aristocratic. “I don’t think any of these gentlemen had to deal with anything like what we have now,” he says, looking up at the paintings.
Hantman, like his predecessors, hasn’t eagerly embraced the changes. It’s easy to understand why: Who wouldn’t rather be an artiste than a general manager? In an interview in his office earlier this month, Hantman keeps his comments vague and curt when talking about the difficulties of supervising 2,000 employees and a $300 million budget. He relaxes noticeably when he mentions that he may get to shake hands with Rosa Parks and the president at a congressional ceremony later that day. He’s already met Mother Teresa and Bob Hope.
If the office’s culture has been slow to adapt to its less glamorous modern role, it’s also had a hard time catching up to contemporary labor practices. Many of the Architect’s mostly blue-collar employees say they do not trust their supervisors to listen to their problems. They worry about their workplace safety in the hands of the largest employer on Capitol Hill. And some workers say that two years into Hantman’s term, they find him even less accessible than his predecessors—who had a long history of quiet (and not so quiet) arrogance.
“There’s little or no accountability,” says one 10-year veteran. “The funny thing about it is that we’re a very loyal work force. We like what we do. We know it’s a privilege. But we don’t feel that the Architect really appreciates what we do.”
Unlike his bosses—the 535 representatives and senators who make up Congress—Hantman wields his power with few checks and balances. Distinct among federal agencies, the Architect’s office is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act and federal and local preservation laws. The Architect can buy a piece of property anywhere in the city, knock it to the ground, and rebuild it any way he likes without so much as a cursory nod to local authorities.
Until three years ago, the Architect also got a free pass on most civil rights, labor, and occupational health and safety laws. Nowadays, Congress is asking the office to comply with those workplace laws. The most dramatic result so far is that many Architect employees have joined unions.
But recent history suggests that it will take more than unions and laws to change the way the Architect runs his show. In the last year, a barrage of embarrassing congressional oversight reports have buffeted the office. In November, Congress’ new independent Office of Compliance reported that the Architect’s employees suffer the highest accident rate in the federal government—higher than those of 130 other agencies and five times greater, for example, than that of the U.S. Forest Service. Workers at the Capitol power plant have been exposed to potentially deadly bacteria not once but twice in the last year, according to Office of Compliance inspectors. And last month, a former employee filed a $10 million suit alleging that supervisors had ordered her to lie to a member of Congress—and fired her when she refused.
In the face of these charges, you’d think that the Architect’s office would be scrambling to change its image. But although some improvements have been made, the office still shrinks from public exposure. “It’s a very demanding facilities-management operation, and there are going to be times when we fall short of our own standards,” says Architect spokesperson Herb Franklin. Although he refuses to discuss union matters or pending litigation, Franklin admits that the office is under fire. “There’s been a change in the context in which the office operates. You now have…regular scrutiny of everything that is done,” he says. But, he adds, “The fact that we’re in the Capitol makes everything a higher profile than it might otherwise be.”
The Architect and his deputies have a big and difficult job, and there will be grumbling employees long after Hantman is simply another portrait on the office wall. But the office’s resistance to change harks back to another era, when Congress winked at the laws it made the rest of the country obey.
“I think he’s treated his employees miserably,” says D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. “This Architect treats the residents of the District of Columbia approximately the way he treats his own employees, and that’s a low standard indeed. Whereas the imperial Congress has been brought down to size, the imperial Architect still lives.”
Richard Harrison has one more year of working nights. Ever since Lyndon B. Johnson was president, he has cleaned floors and hauled trash in darkened House office buildings. Next year, he’ll retire after 33 years as an Architect of the Capitol employee. He’s no anomaly: Many Architect employees devote their entire careers to the office, all the while referring to other, non-Architect jobs as being “on the outside.”
Like many Architect employees, Harrison says he has been glad to have relatively stable work with decent benefits. Especially compared with the other employment opportunities Harrison faced in 1967, it was a fine job. Ask him about it today, though, and his loyalty fades. “It was good at one time, when you could make things happen,” he says of his job. “It was good when you could come in at night, and [an office] would be all torn up, and we would put it back together.”
Harrison is now a night labor foreman, but he hasn’t found the title to be very empowering. Like many Architect employees, he says the agency is stuck in a time warp relative to both the private sector and the rest of the government.
Morale, Harrison says, is “in the cellar,” because of the lack of communication emanating from the Architect’s office. For example, night laborers can earn close to $1,000 per year less than day laborers, Harrison says. But when they’ve asked for a good reason for the difference, he adds, their boss hasn’t offered one.
And even in cases where the Architect has offered explanations for labor practices, some employees have little faith in them. Harrison and his fellow workers have complained for years that they’ve had to do the same amount of work as always with a much smaller staff because the Architect has not hired any new laborers in six years. In 1994, there were 78 day laborers and 76 night laborers maintaining the Senate office buildings; today, there are 56 and 57, respectively. Overall, the Architect’s work force has declined by about 20 percent over the last five years, due to budget cuts and efforts to streamline the operation, Franklin says. Although Franklin claims that the workers aren’t asked to do any more work than their private-sector counterparts, the employees point out that no workplaces in America get as much daily attention as congressional offices.
But perhaps the most obvious example of workplace unfairness, critics say, is the way the Architect treats his mostly female custodians, who dust, vacuum, and empty trash in congressional offices. The women complain about being paid less than the mostly male laborers for similar work. Architect officials have defended the pay differential—which comes out to nearly a dollar an hour—by arguing that the laborers do more heavy lifting. Unswayed, the custodians filed a class-action suit against the Architect two years ago (Washington City Paper, “Cleaning the House,” 9/26/97). So far, the two parties have been unable to reach a settlement.
Norton says she’s amazed that the case has gone on so long, regardless of who’s right. “As a former chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, I can tell you there’s not a major employer in America who would have allowed a simple [Equal Pay Act] suit to go on for more than 10 minutes,” Norton says. “The notion that I am part of the Congress of the United States that gets sued for an equal-pay violation, and two years later he still hasn’t found a way to resolve it, is a personal embarrassment to me.”
Sixty-year-old Hazel Dews is a night custodian on the Senate side and president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 626, which began representing Capitol custodians and laborers two years ago. Dews denies that she lifts any less than the laborers—especially now that she cleans an average of 30 rooms a night, up from 19 just five years ago. “It’s like cleaning a whole city block of houses,” Dews says. “Your back hurts; your feet hurt; you’re totally wiped out.” But, she adds, the wage disparity is just a symptom of a larger problem. “More so than the pay is that as workers we’re invisible,” Dews says. Taking their cues from above, supervisors do not take workers’ concerns seriously, she says—which breeds resentment and distrust.
“There is a level of frustration that I think everybody feels,” Hantman concedes. “We’re playing catch-up in a lot of areas.” But his policy of refusing to discuss specific labor concerns with the press and, Dews says, with most employees, doesn’t earn him any sympathy.
“[Hantman] focuses not on the work we do, but he focuses more on saving money,” Harrison says. “It got to a point where you are just busting your head against a wall.”
Two years ago, Harrison got an invitation to go down to Hantman’s office to be awarded his 30-year pin. He didn’t bother.
Over the years, laborers in the Architect’s office have dug through tons of trash in search of various accidentally discarded Congressional goodies. They once waded up to their knees in rank garbage for a stray piece of newspaper a congressman had used to jot down his thoughts. They spent hours digging up a staffer’s wedding dress—inadvertently junked after the box was left on top of a garbage can. More common were the maddeningly optimistic hunts for that one crucial Manila folder. To add injury to insult, for most of the searches, the laborers didn’t have puncture-proof gloves to protect them from shards of glass or needles that can be found in the compacted trash, Harrison says.
The humiliating searches are just part of the Architect’s historic exchange of courtesies with Congress. “The Architect of the Capitol has been run like a series of medieval fiefdoms,” says Carl Goldman, executive director of AFSCME Council 26. Once upon a time, laborers washed members’ cars in the basements of House office buildings. Today—whether it’s renovating an office fireplace or asking custodians to, ahem, stay out of the office that night—the little favors still matter. And
in return, Congress tends to give the Architect plenty of space.
The trash searches, for instance, passed by without incident until one day last February, when a photographer for the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call happened by a room of nearly a dozen workers digging through trash in search of a Texas congressman’s lost document. The photo set off a firestorm (Washington City Paper, “Paper Tiger,” 6/19/98). Union officials complained that employees did not have the proper equipment to go foraging through rubbish.
Members of Congress, meanwhile, wanted to know why the trash pictured—which was allegedly paper from the House’s recycling program—looked a lot more like mixed, stinking garbage. The cause of their fury lay in the long, tortured history of recycling on the Hill—yet another modern innovation that apparently doesn’t jibe with the Architect’s old-fashioned style.
The history dates back to 1989, when Harrison helped set up a pilot recycling program. A decade later, it’s still just a pilot program. And it’s “lousy,” Harrison says. “You would imagine that of all places in the country, it would be a model.” But, as the scandal around the picture showed, the seemingly benign recycling initiative created great unrest at the Architect’s office—reflecting what critics say are the Architect’s recurring problems with safety and accountability.
With members demanding to know what was behind the festering trash masquerading as recycling, Architect officials asked Patricia Dollar to write a letter defending the recycling program and allaying fears about the risks to employees. Dollar had left the private sector in 1997 to head up the House recycling program. After 20 years working in the paper industry, she felt well-equipped to tackle the job. But, she says, she wasn’t prepared to lie.
Dollar says she refused to write the letter. Despite her efforts over the previous six months, she had found the Architect’s office “intransigent” in adapting her recycling proposals. As a result, the bales of recyclable material were hardly pure, says Dollar, who helped sort through the trash on that fateful day. “I had a can opener stuck to my heel.” Dollar filed two grievances with the Architect’s office, scared that she was going to lose her job over the incident. On April 14, 1998, she was fired.
Since then, Dollar has gone through two mediation sessions, neither of which has led to a resolution. Finally, last May, her attorney filed a $10 million lawsuit against the Architect and his administration, charging them with 46 violations of federal law. Following long-standing policy, Architect officials refuse to discuss pending legislation. Not so Dollar, who has spent much of the last year compiling her case. “They flout the law with impunity, and Congress lets them get away with it,” she says.
Although their concern has been inconsistent and fleeting, members of Congress have slowly started to take a keener interest in the Architect’s affairs. They falter when it comes to following through on their rhetoric, but recent changes still represent the first real oversight the Architect’s office has ever endured. So far, it has been like trying to take candy from a big, bionic baby.
In the past, would-be populists occasionally noticed the Architect’s anachronistic quirks. In 1983, for example, the Senate stripped the Architect of his taxpayer-funded chauffeur (price tag: $18,734). At the time, Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.) remarked that then-Architect George M. White was the only congressional employee “with a chauffeur and car as a line item in the budget.”
But the real shit didn’t fly until 1994, when the General Accounting Office (GAO) issued a short report that eventually felled White, who had been in command since Richard Nixon appointed him in 1971. The report revealed that women and minorities held relatively few managerial jobs in the Architect’s office. White males filled 87.6 percent of the higher-paying positions, compared with 64.3 percent in the federal work force and 63.3 percent in the area’s private companies. The report also revealed that the Architect had no affirmative action program and no clearly defined hiring and promotion policies. Some employees had gone decades without raises and received little or no feedback, let alone training.
“The Office of the Architect of the Capitol… lags behind other federal and private sector
organizations in hiring women and minorities,”
the report stated. “[M]any generally accepted principles of modern personnel management
are absent….GAO concludes that this situation has led to a demoralized and distrustful working environment.”
Like parents who ignore their children and then are shocked to discover that they’ve misbehaved, members of Congress erupted in outrage. Senators like Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.)—who had taken little interest in the Architect before (and would learn to forget about him later)—were calling for his head. Mikulski berated White before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee. Understandably baffled that anyone cared, White nodded and repented and finally stepped down the next year.
Naturally, legislation followed indignation, and more controls were put into place to standardize the Architect’s personnel procedures. But it wasn’t until the Republicans came to town in 1995 that the Architect’s office was commanded to respect the rights of its workers—at least on paper.
The Congressional Accountability Act, born during the heady “Contract With America” days, pronounced that Congress would finally have to live by the laws it made. The bill extended 11 employment and labor laws—including the mandates of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)—to Architect employees. It also forbade retaliation against whistle-blowing employees and created the independent Office of Compliance to watch over legislative-branch facilities and report back to Congress. Almost immediately, custodians, laborers, and Capitol Police took advantage of their right to unionize. For a little while, it looked as if the Architect’s office had joined the late 20th century.
But too many Architect officials treated the new rules like the empty rhetoric they were accustomed to. So far, the Office of Compliance has found dozens of OSHA violations in the Architect’s office. After 20 years as a laborer, D.C. resident Edwin Young puts it this way: “The Architect has a way of appearing to comply with the law, but he never complies with the spirit of the law.”
Although some of the problems have been quickly corrected, others linger ominously. Last August, Office of Compliance inspectors found high levels of the bacterium that causes the potentially fatal Legionnaires’ disease at the Capitol power plant. They shared the results of their investigation with Architect officials and recommended conducting regular tests starting in October. But in March, Compliance inspectors discovered that not only had the testing lapsed, but bacteria levels were again dangerously high. Both times, says one power plant employee, most workers had to hear about the problem from sources other than their supervisors. The worker, who asked that his name not be used for fear of retaliation, says he and some of his co-workers went to see doctors after the second scare but showed no symptoms of the illness.
In 1998, two years after alerting Architect officials to the urgent danger posed by improperly stored flammables, inspectors discovered 700 gallons of flammable liquid in a Senate office building. They issued a citation, and Architect officials quickly removed the material. It was the right response, but years late. Franklin still winces at accepting accountability. “Yeah, we were a little slow on the uptake, but once the central staff got involved, that situation was rectified,” he says.
Ultimately, Franklin concedes that the Office of Compliance has been beneficial overall. “It helps to professionalize our organization,” he says. “But I think [the problems have] been blown way out of proportion journalistically.”
Office of Compliance watchdogging, mounting lawsuits, and bad press—most of it in Hill-centric papers like Roll Call and The Hill—haven’t done much to keep the Architect’s feet from dragging. Gary Green, general counsel for the Office of Compliance, says other legislative offices under his watch do not need repeated prodding to correct their behavior. “Ordinarily, all I have to do is talk to the employer—say, a member [of Congress]—and things get fixed very quickly,” Green says. But with the Architect’s office, he adds, “sometimes it gets fixed, and sometimes it just takes forever, and sometimes it doesn’t get fixed at all.”
The first time the office neglects safety, it could be called an oversight. But the second time, it looks more like an attitude problem. “You would not see a situation like this at a major American corporation,” Green says. “Almost all of them have gotten used to the idea that there’s OSHA; they’ve even gotten used to the idea that safety is good business, and they have taken managerial steps to make safety a priority.”
Ironically, Hantman was specifically brought into the Architect job because of his experience in the private sector—a badge of honor the reigning majority in Congress holds about as highly as a Purple Heart. He came to D.C. from New York, where he had spent six years doing essentially the same job as the Architect of the Capitol for Rockefeller Center. As vice president and director of architecture, planning, and construction, Hantman oversaw a vast complex housing 60,000 mostly business tenants and a regular stable of tourists. According to Vince Silvestri, spokesperson for the Rockefeller Group, Hantman did it well. He managed to “maintain and enhance [Rockefeller Center’s] historic and landmark status, while at the same time allowing it to remain competitive with the nearby office buildings,” Silvestri says.
At the Capitol, Hantman was directed by members of Congress to use his corporate experience to modernize the Architect’s work force. One of the primary goals members emphasized was to work toward privatizing more of the office’s services. And yet the culture of the Architect’s office still has little in common with that of the private sector. Many of Hantman’s aides arrived long before he came along with his private-sector know-how. Without replacing his deputies or making massive structural changes, he can have the noblest intentions and still leave a 200-year-old office unchanged. Hantman himself admits that his office has resisted dealing openly with the public. “I think one of the things we’ve not been doing very well is, frankly, communicating,” he says.
Of course, Hantman’s communications mea culpa comes in the midst of the only interview he has given to Washington City Paper after months of requests—a 15-minute appointment granted with the condition that we discuss only his “philosophy” and not focus on his “problems,” as Franklin, a 10-year veteran, put it. Glasnost it ain’t.
To be sure, some Architect shops have adopted modern-day safety procedures, and employees say promotion policies have improved. Even a professional critic like Green is quick to point out that some Architect officials genuinely want to reinvent the place. And that, Green concedes, is an enormous challenge. “They’re right to complain about fairness, in the sense that they are now being asked to travel a very long distance in a very short period of time,” Green says. “The trouble is that that is exactly what Congress ordered…. That’s the law.”
To make the cycle of inspections and citations go away, Green says the Architect must create a position for a sort of safety overlord, who answers only to the Architect and has authority to check up on every department. “There’s nobody who can crack the safety whip and make it felt throughout the whole organization,” Green says. Although Green has been proposing this fix for over a year, it has yet to happen.
Even if he came here with the intention of treating the Capitol like a private company, Hantman describes his job with a mystique that doesn’t exactly evoke Business Week. In a series of flattering profiles, he’s always been ready to play up his job’s old-time romance. Here is Hantman on his typical day in an April Washington Post story: “I go into a meeting with several of the justices, talking about renovations to the Supreme Court, and I leave that meeting and I’m walking back across the street toward the dome, the
center of our government. It’s still something of
And here he is on working after hours in a July 1998 Los Angeles Times story: “Just walking down the long main hall of the Capitol on the crypt level, down a level from the Rotunda, is a thrill. Just looking down that long corridor, seeing some of the statues, the Minton tiles on the floors, is a wonder experience, and then you hear your footsteps echoing off the walls without the people thronging the halls, that’s great.”
Like every Architect before him, Hantman seems awed by the accouterments of power and history. He frequently works to soften the edges of his clearly difficult job. One longtime employee says Hantman is the first Architect who has ever routinely referred to the Capitol complex as a “campus.” Under his leadership, the Architect’s office has introduced formal afternoon tea service in the Senate Dining Room every Thursday, featuring loose-leaf teas, finger sandwiches, scones, cookies, tarts, and assorted champagnes and wines.
And even as some Senators cut into Hantman’s power, others feed his sense of cultural importance. At Hantman’s nomination hearing, Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) interrupted the proceedings to ask Hantman to introduce his wife, Rosalyn Hantman. Warner then gave her this little welcome-to-the-country-club speech: “You will be an integral part of the life of the Congress of the United States. You will soon find that while [your husband] may bend over the drawing boards by day, often in the evening there are many functions to which you are invited and will add greatly to the life of Congress. So we welcome you.”
The temptation to act like a king of the congressional domain is perhaps most powerful when it comes to dealing with Capitol Hill’s private residents. In 1997, the city got a look at what happens when the Architect exploits the enormous power he has. Acting Architect William Ensign, without consulting neighbors, ordered the demolition of a historic-district town house his office had purchased at 321 Massachusetts Ave. NE to build a Senate child-care center. It was the first historic building demolished without city permission since the historic district was created in 1964. And even though Ensign is long gone, the residents and Norton have not forgotten the slight.
“There’s no law that protects us,” says Drury Tallant of the Stanton Park Neighborhood Association. The Architect’s exemption from preservation laws allows him free reign over Capitol property, and that means any property the office owns. “There’s really nothing to keep him from buying a piece of New Jersey and saying it’s part of the Capitol grounds,” Tallant says.
So far, Hantman has been very responsive to the community, Tallant says. His office has chipped in to help the neighborhood clean up Congressional Cemetery. And Hantman meets with Stanton Park residents, Capitol Hill merchants, and representatives from the D.C. Council and Norton’s office about every six months to discuss their concerns. That’s more than previous architects ever did. Then again, Hantman has not really been tested yet, Tallant says. None of his projects have clashed with residents’ interests.
Norton, however, has already labeled Hantman a “neighborhood villain.” In 1997, when she tried to pass legislation requiring the Architect to give the city 60 days’ notice before starting construction projects, Hantman blocked the policy from becoming law, Norton says. Architect officials ignored her offers to tweak the bill to their liking, she says, and instead pressured members of Congress into dropping the proposal. “He is in direct violation of the Congressional Accountability Act, because he insists upon complete immunity from District of Columbia local processes, while [the rest of] the federal government submits itself entirely to local processes.”
“In the past, we have sent out notices to the community, but we’ve done so in an informal way,” says Franklin, who declines to comment on the prospect of formalizing that arrangement in law.
Although his home district could not be much farther away, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) is one of the few other members of Congress who has shown a passionate interest in the way the Architect treats the community. He has given floor speeches and written letters to Architect officials and fellow members of Congress urging them to lead by example, particularly when it comes to recycling. “The federal government is not as good a neighbor as I’d like it to be,” Blumenauer says. “There are homeless people and Boy Scout troops that recycle more than the entire House.”
But for every fault Blumenauer finds with the Architect, he says he finds a bigger one with his own colleagues: “Congress should set the tone. It’s Congress that exempts the Architect from requirements—whether it’s historic preservation or relations with the community.”
Norton, for her part, predicts that members of Congress won’t start sweating the Architect’s problems until they stack up high enough to serve as political currency. “No one pays any attention to this,” Norton says. But they will, she says, one day: “It’s gonna happen through lawsuits, through embarrassments to the Congress.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.