Nation's grand symbol of freedom is caught in a political stalemate.
Michael Judge, a tour guide, points out paintings inside the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Aug. 2, 2012. The Capitol dome needs a comprehensive rehabilitation, but the House has declined to appropriate the $61 million required for repairs.
WASHINGTON -- To the myriad indignities inflicted and suffered by Congress, including partisan warfare and popularity on par with petty criminals, add this: The Capitol's roof is leaking, and there is no money to fix it.
The grand dome has been dinged by years of inclement weather, and its exterior needs repair. It has 1,300 known cracks and breaks. Water seeping in over the years has caused rusting on the ornamentation and staining on the rotunda's interior, just feet below the fresco "The Apotheosis of Washington."
Like most of what the federal government is on the hook to fix -- highways, bridges and airports -- the dome is imperiled both by tough economic times and by a politically polarized Congress.
Public safety issue
"The dome needs comprehensive rehabilitation," said Capitol architect Stephen T. Ayers. "It's a public safety issue."
The skirt of the dome -- the section around the base of the original sandstone foundation -- was fixed recently at a cost of about $20 million, but an additional $61 million is needed to repair and restore the rest of the structure's exterior.
The Senate Appropriations Committee voted just before Congress left for its August recess to provide the money.
The Republican-controlled House is starting with a smaller overall budget for the 2013 fiscal year than the Democratic-controlled Senate, looking to finance much of the government's operations at lower levels.
Senate leaders have decided it would be too difficult to reconcile the two appropriations bills until after the election. That means Congress will have to pass a short-term spending bill, and it most likely will not include more money for repairs.
"This is not a 'bridge to nowhere' we're talking about here," said Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., chairman of the Senate Rules Committee. "This is basic upkeep to the United States Capitol building. There is a time and place to debate spending levels and the proper role of the federal government, but when your house has a leaky roof, you pay to fix the roof."
The dome was completely restored in 1960 during the construction of the East Front extension.
Weather remains its biggest enemy: Rain and snow pelts the exterior, and the Statue of Freedom endures the occasional strike of lightning. At least 100 pieces of the dome have fallen off or been removed, including a 40-pound cast-iron decorative acorn.
"When you have those conditions on the outside," said Ayers, the Capitol's architect, "it really accelerates deterioration on the inside," including possible damage to the fresco, which is painted on plaster.
In other words, just as it is best to fix a bathroom leak before it causes damage to the rest of the house, the dome repairs could prove much more expensive over time.