Architect of the Capitol reform provides blueprint for strengthening congressional authority

June 1, 2023  

  • Congressional Reform
  • Blog

By: Jack McKenna & Florian Sola

President Biden’s removal of Brett Blanton as Architect of the Capitol (AOC) earlier this year has turned lawmaker attention to congressional oversight prerogatives and provides an opportunity to improve how congressional agencies are structured.

The Architect of the Capitol is the builder and steward of the landmark buildings and grounds of Capitol Hill. Its wide range of responsibilities makes it an essential institution for the security, modernization, and accessibility of Congress.  

Even though their duties are primarily focused on Congress, the AOC is appointed by and accountable to the president. For much of our history, the AOC was appointed solely by the president leaving congressional leaders fully out of the process. The Legislative Branch Appropriations Act of 1990, however, established a new process by which a bipartisan commission of House and Senate leaders would provide a list of three individuals the president could nominate subject to confirmation by the Senate and limited to a ten-year term.

 Congress adopted these reforms in order to “conform the process of the appointment of the Architect more closely to the appointment procedure followed for other officers of similar stature” and “better [reflect] the institutional status of the Architect as an officer of the legislative branch.”  

However, while Congress has a role in nominating and approving the AOC, at present, the AOC can only be removed by the president. This lack of direct oversight by Congress can lead to serious delays in accountability, as was the case with former AOC Brett Blanton who was dismissed by President Biden earlier this year after a weeks-long bipartisan push by members of Congress to fire him following an Inspector General report finding that Blanton “abused his authority, misused government property and wasted taxpayer money, among other substantiated violations.”

To prevent future delays, a bipartisan group of House and Senate lawmakers led by Rep. Bryan Steil (R-WI) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) proposed legislation that would make the AOC fully accountable to Congress.

H.R. 3196 and S. 97 seek to establish a congressional commission solely responsible for the appointment and oversight of the AOC. The commission will consist of House and Senate leaders from both parties, as well as the leadership of the House Administration and Senate Rules and Administration committees.  

This bipartisan effort to reform the AOC is a step in the right direction that will boost government efficiency and accountability. 

Though Congress has taken many important steps towards boosting its capacity over the past several years, it should continue to look at the larger structure and organization of all entities within the legislative branch to ensure they are properly situated to fit the needs of a modern Congress.  

While the Steil-Klobuchar legislation is a step in the right direction, there is still work to be done to align the structures of congressional agencies with the goal of a stronger Article I. To further strengthen government performance and accountability, Congress should take similar actions to provide Congress with appointment and oversight mechanisms for other relevant offices including the Government Accountability Office and the Library of Congress.

Jack McKenna is a Research Associate in Sunwater’s Congressional Reform program. Florian Sola is an intern in Sunwater’s Congressional Reform program.