On a crisp, sunny autumn day, hiking the “hill” (Capitol Hill) in DC may not be as exciting as climbing Scotchman Peak, but it can be pleasant and very interesting. The panoramas include reflecting pools, grass malls, marble monuments and buildings intimidating in their size and security. The wild animals in DC may not be threatened and endangered but they are still somewhat secretive, stealthy and often unpredictable. Congressmen, senators, staffers and others stalk policy initiatives with the same focus and intent as a large carnivore uses to track a moose or elk.
These places of power are the peoples’ – they are yours and mine. The halls of congress are open to all: to tourists, constituents with a concern, lobbyists with initiatives and to the many, many people that it takes to provide staff support for each and every one of the 535 members of congress.
While the votes you see on the nightly news are taken under the dome of the Capitol building, the daily business takes place in the congressional office buildings – massive complexes. Here is where your letters go to be read, where we go to meet with congressional staff and members, where they talk among themselves, where the all important committee hearings take place. On the north side of the Capitol are the three Senate buildings, all connected with tunnels and walkways; on the south side are the three House of Representatives office buildings, again connected with long, underground walkways.
But the REAL halls of congress, the place where everyone eventually goes to meet and mingle are on the basement levels. In the middle of each of these complexes are large congressional cafeterias, where everyone ends up in the same big room.
Open to all, they are some of the best people watching you will find anywhere! Congressional staff come down for breakfast, lunch or breaks. More rarely the congressional members themselves are sighted. Always there are lobbyists with power suits and ties, concerned citizens with notebooks and notions, federal agency folks and other witnesses about to testify before a panel. Diplomats might be seen along with their military attaches and drivers. Receptionists, mailroom clerks, building maintenance workers and janitors take their breaks here. Sometimes the stray tourist wanders in.
Neutral ground. From outward appearances it’s usually impossible to tell a person’s “story”, though it’s fun to speculate. Only the uninitiated talk “business”; you never know who is listening. Reporters may be stalking a story. The same is true while walking the halls. Assume that the walls have ears, because someone around a corner or across the table certainly does. Keep private discussions for rooms with closed doors or for the long walk up and down the hill.
We had some great discussions too, more on that in the next blog.