No-visitors center?

July 19, 2002

IF YOU HAVEN'T seen the U.S. Capitol for awhile, a trip there now will be quite a shock.

The view from the east side, where the Supreme Court sits, has been almost completely obscured. Wooden barriers hide earth-movers digging a hole three-fourths the size of the Capitol itself.

The ostensible purpose of this massive, three-year construction project, which could cost taxpayers as much as $1 billion, is to create a visitors center that will make a tour of the Capitol "more accessible, comfortable, secure and informative for all."

We hope it won't be used as an excuse to keep visitors out.

Access to the Capitol has already been sharply restricted in response to the Sept. 11 attacks. Until then, tourists who passed through metal detectors were free to roam nearly all parts of the building at will.

They could take their time with the historic paintings and documents, try out the echo in statuary hall, poke around the nooks and crannies of the basement that offer odd bits of history at every turn. Those days, alas, are probably gone forever.

Lawmakers privately complained about the sweaty hordes jamming the halls. They became fearful after a madman shot his way into the building in 1998 and killed two Capitol Police officers. Sept. 11 and the subsequent anthrax attacks spooked them so badly they approved financing for the long-delayed visitors center last fall without debate.

Reaching five stories into the ground, the center has been designed to include exhibit halls, theaters, restaurants, parking -- and, not incidentally, gobs of new office space for lawmakers who never seem to have enough.

Sounds comfy. The worry is that interior views of the Capitol itself will be limited to tightly timed and regimented tours, as they are at the much-smaller White House.

Taxpayers footing the bill for this boondoggle -- at a time when the country is running up huge deficits to pay for wartime needs -- deserve more.

The Capitol is the most powerful symbol of the freedom and democracy we are fighting to protect. In weighing the balance between access and security, we strongly urge Congress to favor access.

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