The other AOC has big plans for 2020

The Architect of the Capitol is requesting a sizable budget boost for fiscal 2020

Acting Architect of the Capitol Christine Merdon is requesting a sizable budget boost for fiscal 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Architect of the Capitol is requesting a sizable budget boost as the agency tries to tackle massive restoration projects and fend off cybersecurity threats.

Acting Architect of the Capitol Christine Merdon submitted an $832 million request for fiscal 2020, which would be a $98 million, or 15.9 percent, increase over enacted levels.

“We are in a race against time to maintain our infrastructure. Stone from this building can crumble in your hand,” she warned lawmakers in a hearing Tuesday in front of the House Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee.

Unlike the other 11 appropriations subcommittees, the Legislative Branch panel was able to begin work on its fiscal 2020 spending accounts. That’s because the Capitol Hill agencies have already submitted their requests, while President Donald Trump’s proposals for the rest of the government have been delayed past the February deadline.

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The budget request includes an additional $60 million for projects to maintain major campus landmarks, including 25 multiyear projects.

More projects mean more managers. And Merdon said the agency’s requested 24 percent increase for its Capitol construction and operations management account would pay for more project managers, safety and fire professionals, and contracting officers.

“We are right-sizing our organization to accommodate our growing needs and responsibilities,” she said, referencing the increasing number of projects and also the growing footprint of the AOC. The agency now has jurisdiction over the O’Neill federal building and property at Union Square.

Merdon told the panel that the AOC’s usual practice of requesting just enough funding to keep projects on track has been at the expense of “operational support needs.” Contracting officers under AOC execute approximately 200 contracts a year, while most federal contracting officers handle about half that load, Merden testified.

Lawmakers such as C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Maryland Democrat, and Jaime Herrera Beutler, a Washington Republican, dug into the agency’s request for more cybersecurity funding.

At the start of the hearing, Herrera Beutler quipped that Merdon and her staff are “the real AOC,” referring to freshman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who is often referred to by her initials, AOC.

Cybersecurity is a top risk facing the agency, according to Merdon and the agency’s inspector general. But the AOC’s information technology funding, at 3 percent of the current budget, is among the lowest in the federal budget.

The federal average spending on IT is approximately 11 percent.

Merdon said that while Architect of the Capitol staff work around the clock, IT support is available only between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays.

In response to a question from Herrera Beutler, Merdon told the panel that the agency faces millions of “events” each year where outside actors attempt to breach internal systems. The near constant threat puts sensitive information at risk, including building plans, security infrastructure information and plans for lawmaker offices.

Ruppersberger inquired where most of the international threats originated, and Merdon told the panel that many were from “the usual suspects,” citing Russia and China.

The proposal includes $7 million for the inaugural festivities in early 2021, a line item that makes the 2020 election seem even closer than it already appears. 

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