The Ronald Reagan Building: The revenge of big government
By Arianna Huffington
November 26, 1997
So, after 10 years and close to a billion dollars ($2 billion if you include financing), one of the biggest and most expensive buildings in the world is set to open. What is it, you ask? A new Steve Wynn casino with a full-scale mock up of Mount Everest? A tasteful gold-leaf, phallic tower called "Trump Something"? Good guesses all, but it's actually the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. And it even, finally, has a few tenants. Which is not to say that it's actually finished -- the formal dedication won't happen until April 1998.
The Reagan building is a model of excess, in more ways than one. To cite the most obvious uber-excess, it came in at 125 percent over budget ($818 million, as opposed to $362 million -- close enough for government work, as people used to say). And despite a finance scheme that legislators swore up and down would cost the Treasury nothing, taxpayers have ended up footing the entire bill.
And then there are the other excesses. Like the building's size -- at 3.1 million square feet, the only government building larger is the Pentagon. (Even the colossal Empire State building has only 2.1 million square feet.) Perhaps this is fitting. In the Cold War era, military might defined a nation's status. In the New World Order, with trade technology and GDP as the new global-power standards, it seems appropriate to have a new symbol of national excess.
But God is in the detail, and with the Reagan building, so are the most inspired extravagances. Like the five custom skylights. Or the glass-domed restaurant where lobbyists can expense lunch with their favorite government officials -- equipped, perhaps, with a revolving door between the public and private sectors. Or the 42,000 slabs of Indiana limestone on the exterior. Or the 80,000 square feet of space, given --rent-free for 30 years, thanks to the maneuvering of Sen. Patrick Moynihan -- to the Woodrow Wilson Institute, a think tank that perhaps could now spend some time thinking about government waste. Or the fact that, with all the privately leasable space available in the building, the federal government has gotten itself into the real estate business without any expertise or mandate to do so. Who needs the Donald? We have the Ronald.
All in all, an orgy of government excess. The idea to name the behemoth after our 40th president was Rep. Andrea Seastrand's, who is no longer in the House. It was co-sponsored by other prominent conservative opponents of big government, including Reps. Bob Dornan -- also no longer in the House -- Chris Cox, Dana Rohrbacher and Duncan Hunter.
Back then, the building was still known as the International Center for Trade and Technology -- so the co-sponsors thought it should be named after a renowned advocate of "free and fair trade," which, no question, Reagan was. But surely, the president who was also the greatest 20th century critic of government excess would have rather had a nice plaque or a ribbon. Or even something more lavish, like a $500 million gift certificate, which still would have saved us over $300 million.
Ironically, Reagan signed the authorization bill himself, back in 1987, not imagining that one day it would both be named after him and contain one of his most beloved bureaucracies -- the Environmental Protection Agency. It was called the Federal Triangle Act, which, after $818 million disappeared into it, should perhaps be renamed the "Bermuda Triangle Act."
That bill called for the project to be financed with private money, with the government paying back the developer over a 30-year period. But as costs kept escalating, the decision was made in 1990 to have the project financed through the Federal Finance Bank, which offers below-market-rate loans. This did indeed reduce financing costs -- down to a mere $65 million a year over the next three decades, adding up to the building's ultimate $2 billion price tag.
The last time a government building excited so much controversy was back in 1982, when the Hart Senate Office Building opened its doors to senators. Forgive the nostalgia, but remember the days when you could build an unnecessarily luxurious building for under $200 million? Actually, dubbed the "Taj Mahal," the Hart Building came in at a trifling $138 million. Still, it made many senators reluctant to move in for fear of angering their constituents. But at least it had a kind of internal integrity, since Philip Hart, a Democratic senator from Michigan from 1958 to 1976, was a leading big-government proponent of his time.
With Reagan, it's another story altogether. Remember, we're living at a time when Republican Party leaders are busy adding $22.6 billion to domestic programs, new entitlements to the budget and fresh pork for their constituents -- from $100 million for Lockheed Martin, an impoverished dependent of Newt Gingrich's in Marietta, Ga., to $720 million to that desperately needy charity, Ingalls Shipbuilding, currently panhandling in the streets of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's Mississippi hometown. So naming the biggest federal building after the Pentagon for Ronald Reagan seems to provide the perfect mixed signal to match the policy confusion on the Hill. Up to now, Reagan had been a powerful symbol of a simple but passionate clarity in political objectives. Now, this symbol too will be compromised.
Republican leaders, battling to pick up Reagan's mantle before 2000, will no doubt engage in an internecine fight over what the party stands for. Memorializing the last leader who unified the party and actually stood for something in this bizarre way only makes the party's core message murkier.Conservatives won the rhetorical war against intrusive government when the president declared that "the era of big government is over." In a curious way, the rhetorical surrender made it easier for reliance on big government to continue unabated. When it is officially opened in the spring, the Ronald Reagan building will be an apt symbol of this contradiction. Maybe the Republicans should try reaching for Reagan's principles instead of for the tattered security blanket of his name.
© 2004 Christabella, Inc. All rights reserved.
Find this article at: