“Green the Capitol” Program Goes Murky Gray

Source: iStockphotoMore tax dollars up in smoke from “greening’s” dismal failure. This in today’s New York Times:

When Dan Beard resigned as House chief administrative officer this month, he left behind a “Green the Capitol” program that brought him constant criticism and cost millions of taxpayer dollars.

For the short term, at least, the program will continue. But it seems destined to function in the background, rather than return to the center of a publicity campaign that once flourished under Beard.

For the past year, the Office of the CAO’s greening staff has focused on the relatively low-key effort of encouraging members of Congress to adopt such office practices as printing double-sided, installing compact florescent light bulbs and switching to e-faxing. A Democratic leadership aide said the office will most likely continue on that path; the Green the Capitol office, he said, is now an established and integrated part of the House’s functions.

But the road to an institutionalized office was tumultuous.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) first tasked Beard with carrying out her Green the Capitol initiative in 2007, jump-starting the CAO’s involvement in a Congress-wide effort to become an example of energy efficiency. During Beard’s three-year tenure, the program became almost synonymous with his name — as did criticism for its high-profile initiatives.

Among other things, Republicans attacked Beard for spending $90,000 on carbon offsets, appropriating hundreds of thousands of dollars on compostable cafeteria supplies and diverting money from some popular programs to pay for the Green the Capitol office.

Aside from the Green the Capitol program, Beard also restructured divisions within CAO that handled such administrative functions as House payroll and benefits. That led to more criticism from some staffers, and Beard’s relationship with House employees began to deteriorate.

He announced his resignation on July 1 after a House inspector general report criticized his office’s financial divisions for low morale and miscommunication. On July 18, the position was temporarily handed to Dan Strodel, who helped oversee CAO as a senior adviser on the House Administration Committee.

Strodel will no doubt work closely with the committee and House leadership on steering the Office of the CAO. In an e-mail, he said he will continue greening efforts under Pelosi’s direction.

“Making House operations more sustainable and reducing energy consumption through the Green the Capitol program continues to be a priority for the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer,” he said. “The successful effort, with the ongoing support of the speaker, will move forward with its mission to save both resources and taxpayer dollars.”

CAO’s Green the Capitol office now has seven employees — plus two interns — who work with the Architect of the Capitol to implement everything from structural renovations to recommendations for House offices. It has an annual budget of $1 million, plus $554,000 for employees’ salaries.

Marcum said the staffing will remain the same “through the end of the 111th.” After that, the office’s existence will no doubt rely on Pelosi retaining the speaker’s gavel. A 2009 report from the Congressional Research Service pointed out that the program exists only at the House speaker’s discretion, but suggestions on how to formalize the program were never pursued.

Lower-profile projects

Still, CAO’s greening office is attempting to instill lasting energy-efficient practices with lawmakers. Marcum said the office has so far completed consultations with 222 district offices and plans to complete 30 per month until the end of the year. Employees will also instruct incoming freshman members on CAO’s “My Green Office” campaign during the upcoming transition to the 112th Congress.

Other current projects include training staff for a recently implemented “green procurement process” and working with the Architect of the Capitol on a long list of energy and sustainability projects.

“Efforts to communicate the progress of the Green the Capitol program will continue,” Marcum said. “Going forward, the House will maintain its focus on a wide range of comprehensive greening and energy reduction projects that have already made the working environment better for staff.”

But any prominent initiatives under the Green the Capitol banner seem unlikely, at least for the rest of the year. CAO had hoped, for example, to begin installing energy-efficient lighting in the Capitol dome by the end of the year; that $7 million project is no longer on the short-term to-do list. A $2.5-million project to publicly demonstrate new technologies also shows no signs of movement.

One reason, perhaps, is the high-profile and controversial nature of such projects. Republicans have long decried plans to relight the dome, pointing out that the payback period for replacing the lights could be more than a century. The demonstration projects have also attracted steady GOP criticism. In a statement last year, Republican members of the Administration Committee argued that the initiative should not be under CAO’s direction.

“The CAO’s demonstrated record of engaging in high-profile but poor-value projects undermines the credibility of the Congress and should not continue to be encouraged,” they wrote.

Whereas his predecessor shied from media coverage, Beard had established a press office and launched a website that, among other things, touted the greening progress. But by the time he resigned, the once-constant publicity for House greening initiatives had already declined.

The last press release on the program was in April, when the CAO and the Architect of the Capitol jointly authored a report on greening progress. Even the Twitter feed has become intermittent: once updated every few days, employees have not written a 140-character update for almost three weeks.

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