WASHINGTON -- Getting an American flag that once flew over the Capitol -- if only for a few seconds -- is one of the most enduring traditions of this federal city.
For decades, people have snapped them up by the millions -- Boy Scout troops and veterans groups have placed big orders. Constituents love them flown on birthdays, an anniversary or the Fourth of July. Rep. James P. Moran Jr., D-Va., had one raised on June 8, the day that Air Force pilot Scott O'Grady was rescued from Bosnia, and gave it to the family.
But now, in a vote expected today, the House is poised to wipe out funding for the congressional flag office, bringing into question the future of an operation that has hoisted more than 2 million flags over the Capitol for flattered constituents since 1937.
The new Republican Congress wants to save the $328,000 it costs to pay the 10 people who work in the airless office stacked to the ceiling with boxes of flags and the laborers who tromp to the roof of the Capitol and zip 800 to 900 flags a day up and down three special flag poles.
Instead, the GOP want to give the duties to the private U.S. Capitol Historical Society. But the Historical Society is not certain it can do the job.
"I looked to Congress to set the example for what the rest of government can do in terms of downsizing, privatizing and streamlining," Rep. Ron Packard, R-Calif., chairman of the House legislative appropriations subcommittee, wrote in a recent letter to other lawmakers. "This private, free enterprise way to honor Old Glory offers a win-win solution."
Understandably, George M. White, the architect of the Capitol who oversees the flag office, is furious.
"Who will certify that it flew?" said a dapper Mr. White, 74, dressed in a gray linen suit and a red bow tie and waving a flag-embossed certificate bearing his signature. "This is a federal operation. There's a federal signature on here. What will the public think in some other instance?"
It is a concern Mr. White well understands: He has installed a closed-circuit television on top of the roof to make sure the workers actually send the nylon or cotton flags up the pole. "We had an incident once where the flags were taken out of the boxes and sort of waved around a lot," he confided.
"I think it's a shame to privatize," said Bill Raines, spokesman for the Architect's office. "It's the most patriotic thing they do up here."
If Mr. White is furious, Clarence "Bud" Brown, a former Ohio congressman and now president of the Historical Society, is a bit confused.
"We're a little bit at sixes and sevens to know how to address the problem," Mr. Brown said.
Now, constituents write their lawmakers requesting a flag flown over the Capitol and pay anywhere from $6.66 for a 3-by-5 foot nylon flag to $76.80 for a larger cotton one. Lawmakers buy the flags at cost at the stationery store and leave the rest -- the raising, the certifying -- to the flag office.
Mr. Packard expects the prices to go up if the flag-raising is privatized.
It's a practice that has grown from just 12 requests for flags flown in 1937 to 134,105 in 1994 alone.
To keep up with the demand, Mr. White has installed a elevator just to take flag-filled carts from the basement flag room up to the terrace on the West side of the Capitol. The carts are then wheeled a few feet, attached to a winch and heaved to the copper roof.
Yesterday, workers blasting rock music quickly raised and lowered the flags in the noonday heat -- they have to do their noisy maintenance work in the cool mornings, before lawmakers get to their offices.
"I've got a funny feeling people think their flag was one of these three," said Robert Ferris, who had just finished flying 800 flags, pointing to the large flags over the Capitol that fly all day. "But each one is up only 30 seconds." To count the 30 seconds, Mr. Ferris said, "I do the 'One Mississippi, two Mississippi' type thing."
When reporters suggested that the practice was a little silly, Mr. White snapped, "Would two hours make a difference?"
"One constituent thought they loaded the flags up in a C-17 and actually flew them over the Capitol," said a spokesman for Rep. John Linder, R-Ga., who gets about five flag requests a week. "So, some think that even less happens."
And even if the Historical Society does take over, what the Senate will do is still a big question. Sen. Connie Mack, R-Fla., chairman of the key Senate subcommittee, favors privatization. Still, Mr. Brown doubts the actual flying time will increase.
"When I have given a flag . . . I have always made mention that the flag had flown briefly over the Capitol," Mr. Brown said. "And I always say briefly."