Wanted: Motivated and versatile chief executive, preferably with engineering, architectural, academic and diplomatic skills, to manage 2,400 employees overseeing a 570-acre complex in the middle of Washington — including the U.S. Capitol, Supreme Court, Library of Congress, parks, restaurants and a major power plant. The position reports to the president, but Congress is trying to wrest control.
Political dexterity is essential.
A nationwide hunt is underway for a new architect of the Capitol, the federal official in charge of the operations and maintenance of the Capitol complex — the heart of American democracy and in more recent years, dysfunction. A special congressional commission is searching for potential candidates on university campuses and museum boards, and in the military, major transit systems and even theme parks.
“This is a uniquely complex role,” said Marshall Reffett of Reffett Associates, the search firm Congress has hired. “A term we often use is a ‘unicorn.’”
The job, to preserve and secure some of America’s most iconic monuments and treasures, was for two centuries largely obscure but has taken on new importance since the Jan. 6, 2021, attacks. The previous architect, J. Brett Blanton, a Trump appointee, stayed at home during the assault on the Capitol, enraging members of both parties. President Biden fired him in February after an 800-page investigative report found that he misrepresented himself as a police officer and used government vehicles for a Florida vacation, a brewery visit and errands by his daughters, who ignited the official investigation when they were spotted speeding through a Walmart parking lot.
Mr. Blanton’s high-profile flameout is only one factor complicating the search for a new head of an agency that, confusingly, has the same name as the title of the job, Architect of the Capitol, and the same shorthand reference, A.O.C., as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York.
Recent inspector general reports document waste, absenteeism, contracting irregularities, workplace misconduct and sexual harassment at an agency with an annual budget of $1.3 billion. Some 17 agency employees knew about Mr. Blanton’s misconduct but did not report it. The agency’s $1 billion restoration of the House Cannon office building is about $200 million over budget, with some expenses improperly charged to taxpayers, like a baby gift, coffee supplies and lawyer’s fees for contractors hauled before Congress to account for blown deadlines and cost overruns. Failures of the Capitol Police Board (the architect is one of three voting members) and Mr. Blanton’s failed response contributed to the Jan. 6 Capitol breach, according to a Senate report.
Mr. Blanton did not response to calls and emails seeking an interview. In the Feb. 9 House Administration Committee hearing that led to his firing Mr. Blanton, he said “it would have been not prudent” to drive to the Capitol during the attack “because there would have been next to no way to get onto this campus at that time with the number of people that were there.” He “wholeheartedly” rejected the inspector general’s findings. “The report is filled with errors, omissions, mischaracterizations, misstatements and conclusory statements lacking evidence,” he said.
The job pays $212,000 annually. Similar private sector jobs command more than twice that.
“Problem after problem after problem,” Thomas J. Carroll III, a former acting architect of the Capitol, told investigators. He has since left government. “Getting away was a great break,” he added.
The hiring team declined to say how many applications have come in; congressional aides involved in the search say the firm has identified about two dozen potential candidates. “People who know what this job is are thrilled to be asked to consider it,” Mr. Reffett said.
“We are emphasizing service,” he added. “We have to play up ‘You’ve had a great career, and now it’s time to give back.’”
Architects of the Capitol are appointed by the president to 10-year terms, but bipartisan legislation introduced last month proposes to move control of the agency’s chief from the White House to Congress. The change would put the architect more fully under the eye of 535 of the most demanding bosses in the nation: members of Congress who rely on the agency for everything from running the lottery for lawmakers’ offices to hanging pictures to assigning them security details after threats.
The White House has not objected to the proposed change. The American Institute of Architects, an industry advocacy group, is in the meantime insisting that the next person to hold the job be a licensed architect, bound by the industry’s ethical standards. Mr. Blanton, an engineer with experience in the Navy and at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, is one of several nonarchitects to hold the job, but the first in recent years. Congress is reluctant to narrow the search to architects only, but the A.I.A. is nonetheless promoting the opening to its 96,000 members, and has sent a list of potential candidates to the hiring team.
“This job requires the skills of an architect, especially in terms of space planning,” said Emily Grandstaff-Rice, the president of the institute. But, she added, “because you have great access to many decision makers within the government, it’s a people-facing position as well.”
Indeed, the architect’s unofficial duties include managing relations with a Congress engulfed by partisanship. In January during multiple votes on Representative Kevin McCarthy’s bid for the House speakership, Republicans who opposed him asked the inspector general to investigate the architect for “allowing” Mr. McCarthy to move into the speaker’s offices before he had the votes.
Republicans have publicly criticized a nearly $1 million security fence the architect installed before the 2022 State of the Union address and metal detectors installed after the Jan. 6 attack, which they say are an exercise in political optics after President Trump summoned rioters to the Capitol. Several Republican legislators have been fined for dodging the magnetometers.
“I’m fully committed to depoliticizing security,” said Representative Bryan Steil, Republican of Wisconsin and chairman of the Committee on House Administration, whose first hearing as the chairman led to Mr. Blanton’s firing. “I came in to this role and tried to put a new set of eyes on a lot of things. ‘How we’ve always done it’ just doesn’t cut it for me.”
Mr. Steil and Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota and chair of the Senate Rules Committee, are among the sponsors of the new legislation.
“I believe in government accountability, and that is why we came together across the aisle to call on the previous architect of the Capitol to resign because of his abuse of the office,” Ms. Klobuchar said in an emailed statement. “We’re now working in a bipartisan way to pass legislation updating how this official is appointed to ensure that they are accountable to Congress.”
Five More Fired
The architect of the Capitol’s origins date to 1793, when William Thornton, an amateur architect, became the first official to hold the job after his design of the U.S. Capitol was accepted by President George Washington. Since then there have been only 11 others in the position, including luminaries like George M. White, an architect, engineer and scholar who served from 1971 to 1995 and oversaw construction of the Hart Senate Office Building and the Library of Congress’s James Madison Building and scaled the Capitol dome to monitor restoration work personally.
Today the agency is responsible for maintaining more than 200 acres of grounds and 18.4 million square feet of buildings. In addition to restaurants, it also operates parking garages, congressional gyms and the subway system that transports lawmakers to votes. It runs the Capitol visitor center and the Capitol Power Plant, which heats and cools 36 buildings plus Union Station, a major Mid-Atlantic train hub. A phalanx of tradespeople and artisans preserve and restore the historic edifices, antique furniture and hundreds of pieces of priceless artwork.
Chere Rexroat, a licensed architect who has been the agency’s chief engineer, is now serving as acting architect of the Capitol. Since February she has fired five top-tier executives. They include the general counsel, who moved across the country during the pandemic; the chief financial officer; and the chief executive of the Capitol visitor center, for what an inspector general determined was an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate supervisor.
In the meantime, the search for a permanent replacement continues.
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