At the same time its lawmakers debate spending cuts, tax increases and the fiscal cliff affecting average Americans, Congress is spending a half-billion dollars to refurbish one of its office digs.
To put that into perspective, the pricetag to renovate the U.S. House of Representatives' century-old Cannon Office Building is just shy of the size of the historic Powerball lottery jackpot won this week. And based on Washington's current average square foot price for new construction, taxpayers could actually build at least four new buildings of the same size as Cannon for the same amount of money to fix the current model.
So that begs the question: Why did the Architect of the Capitol approve the contract worth up to $550 million to a joint venture by Clark Construction and The Christman Company with little fanfare just before the Thanksgiving holiday?
The Washington Guardian repeatedly sought an answer, but the House Administration Committee that oversees congressional spending deferred to the Capitol Architect, whose office did not respond to numerous phone calls and an in-person visit seeking comment.
On its Web site, though, the Architect's office promises it "is committed to maximizing taxpayer value, reducing the risk of cost overruns and delays, and minimizing disruption to the work of Congress."
For taking on such a costly project and failing to embrace cheaper alternatives at the same time Americans face their own belt-tightening, the Congress and its Architect of the Capitol win this week's Golden Hammer award designed to highlight excessive spending in Washington.
Walk into the Cannon Office Building and it hardly looks in need of a renovation. Its walls and floor are pristine and regal, still sporting the granduer of the early 1900s when it was built. Many lawmakers and their staffs still work there each day, one of the three official office buildings for the House of Representatives.
But the Architect says it's what you can't see that is the reason for the renovation. A video produced by the Architect's office discusses many of the renovations that are needed, including repairing the roof and stopping rain water from leaking in. In some shots, water can be seen leaking into Member's offices. And the heating and coolling system is decades old. Some of the outside stone is also weakening.
"This is a over hundred-year-old piece of stone and it's just crumbling apart," Mark Italiano, project manager for U.S. House office buildings, says in the video. A chunk of stone that was taken from the exterior of Cannon crumbles to dust in his hands.
A report by the Government Accountability Office said repairs are "needed to maintain the integrity and safety of these facilities." Cannon is over 100-years-old and, according to the GAO, has a 70-year-old hot water heating and building ventilation system.
But the cost of the repairs are stunning when compared to the current cost of building new structures in Washington D.C. The Real Estate Investment Center, which provides data on buildings and real estate, estimates that constructing a large office building of above average quality in Washington, D.C. would cost $144 per square foot in 2010.
With a contract for $550 million, Cannon's price tag is $665.48 per square foot, almost five times as much as the Real Estate Investment Center's estimate.
But that might not be the final amount. In 2009, the GAO reported that the Architect of the Capitol was planning to request $753 million for the renovations, plus $68 million for repairing the building's two garages - a grand total of $821 million. There's no word yet on whether the $550 million awarded to Clark/Christman will cover all expenses - or if the project will require more money.
The restorations aren't expected to begin until 2015. And it may not be the only refurbishing going on soon.
Several other government buildings are also in need of repair. For instance, the dome of the U.S. Capitol Building has numerous cracks and leakages. Repairs are estimated at $61 million just for that project.
Click here to see other recent winners of the Golden Hammer.