A week ago today (4/14/15) was my 4th day in DC, and I had made up my mind that it would be my last. I originally scheduled two nights and only two full days in DC, but it became apparent that I would need more time.
I didn’t have high hopes going into my DC visit. I expected the city to be an expensive dog and pony show meant for foreigners.
My outlook quickly changed upon learning that practically everything is free except for food and hotels, and since I sleep for free and eat what I make, I was able to enjoy the museums, monuments, and memorials at a ridiculously favorable cost to content ratio.
And I saved the most intimidating attraction for last.
The Capitol Building has an hour long free tour that takes you on [what feels like] a walking conveyor belt of attractions and nuances within the building.
Actually for what it was, the tour was well done, but you have to move quickly and they don’t permit you to stray far from the guide. It starts with a 15 minute American history recap video that will get your patriotic blood pumping. Then they cut the masses into manageable ~15 person groups, gear you up with headsets tuned to your guide’s frequency, and send you on your way.
The first of the three rooms we visited was called The Crypt, so named because it was where the early Congress had wanted to bury George Washington. Fully aware that General Washington had explicitly asked to be buried at his nearby home at Mt. Vernon, Congress fought tooth and nail for the right to supersede his will and burry his remains in the center of the basement of the Capitol Building. Eventually Virginia had to sign legislation into effect in order to legally tell Congress to buzz off and stop pestering the Washington Family. So now there’s just an empty grave and an interesting anecdote.
From there we shuffled upstairs into The Rotunda. The room created by the big dome of the Capitol Building is The Rotunda. Our guide explained that the engraving around the dome’s inner circumference tells the story of America, from discovery to WWII.
The painting at the top shows George Washington hosting a rad party in the clouds with all of his best deity buddies.
There was construction happening on the dome while I was there, and the protective sheets they had installed around the painting added to the lofty triumphant scene.
Lastly, We went through National Statuary Hall which used to be the room where the House of Representatives held council until the body outgrew its floor space. As each new state was admitted to the Union, they were invited to create a statue out of either bronze or marble of one of their state’s distinguished members to be displayed in the hall.
Interesting note: The current House Chamber, which seats 435 representatives, has been in use since construction was completed in 1857. Four years later (1861) the South seceded and removed 58 representatives from the 1860 election. The lost seats were from Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas. Later an additional 19 representatives from Virginia and Tennessee were removed from the 1862 election.
This put the remaining 185 members of the House in a room that had space for 450. That’s just over 40% capacity. It’s hard to know exactly how the physical emptiness of the House Chamber psychologically affected its members, but in my imagination it must have loomed heavily.
“Will we ever even come close to needing this much space? Or has the momentum of our nation crested?”
I talked with the guide for a minute after the tour and he told me that if I had time I should try to sit in on the Senate and House because they’re in session today.
I didn’t even know that was an option.
“Uh.. yeah, you’re totally right, I totally should”
All I had to do was visit the office of my state senator and ask for a ticket. I power-walked over to Senator Boxer’s office, and her secretary handed me tickets to the House and Senate Galleries (they call the balcony that surrounds the House or Senate floor “The Gallery”). I figured I should pay a visit to Senator Feinstein’s office too just to say I’ve been.
I hustled back to the Capitol Building and went through the process of observing the the Senate and House. And boy was it a process:
- Pass through primary security to enter Capitol Building (had to do this for the one hour tour I took earlier too)
- Leave backpack and electronics at the Senate baggage check.
- Take the elevator up to the balcony level.
- Pass through Senate secondary security check.
- Observe Senate.
- Leave back the way I came and take the elevator down.
- Pick up backpack and electronics from the Senate baggage check.
- Walk through the main floor of the visitor center and leave backpack at the House baggage check.
- Take the same elevator up to the balcony level.
- Pass through House secondary security check.
- Observe House.
I asked if I could take my pencil and notebook with me, but they said no, citing the rule that no one shall read or write while in the Galleries.
Once seated in the Gallery, I watched the action on the floor, and I found it a little bizarre to follow:
A Senate representative from Utah spoke emphatically to a mostly empty auditorium. The only audience in attendance was the President Pro Tempore (“stand-in”) for Joe Biden and his hand full of staff members.
The House was more exciting, and I was able to witness a vote.
The topic up for debate had something to do with an amendment to the Equal Pay Act. After the Democrat championing the amendment made his case, his Republican counterpart was given a chance to respond. The Republican guy thanked the Democrat guy for presenting his amendment and elected to waive his time on the floor.
The Democrat guy then had a woman testify the inequalities faced by women in the work place and tell (not explain) how this amendment was crucial to the acts’ effectiveness. When given the chance to respond, the Republican guy thanked the Democrat guy and the Democrat woman for their presentation, and he went to great lengths to illustrate what close and kindred relationship he and the Democrat guy shared outside the walls of the House chamber despite their different political inclinations. He then waived his time to dispute the amendment.
The amendment was put to a vote and the red digital clock began counting down from 15 minutes. Every house member’s last name was projected on the wall behind the front stage. The votes tricked in throughout the 15 minutes, and representatives began to fill the floor.
Hardly anybody sat down, hardly anybody paid close attention to the scoreboard, and nobody stopped their conversations when Speaker Pro Tempore read the decision that the Republicans had successfully defeated the amendment.
Also, I think it’s worth mentioning that votes continued to accumulate after the 15 minute timer had reached 0:00, and I would estimate that each side gathered as many as 10 votes in the 5 minutes after time ran out. Maybe the votes had to be validated or finalized somehow, despite the fact that everyone voted electronically.
Then the Democrat guy asked for a re-vote, which I would equate to a sudden death rematch of sorts, and this time the red digital countdown clock started at 5:00. Within the first 2 minutes the vote tallies shot up to 90% of their final count from the 15 minute round. Likewise, 90% of the representatives made their way off the floor and out of the room before the vote was officially read – something like 190 “yays” and 230 “nays”.
The decision was unceremoniously struck by the Speaker Pro Tempore’s gavel before a nearly empty House floor. I left my seat not long after.
I spent the remainder of my day across the street in the Thomas Jefferson Library of Congress. I had planned on writing a bunch about what a cool book collector and knowledge enthusiast Thomas Jefferson was, and how he single handedly jumpstarted the reassembly of the Library of Congress after it was burned down during the War of 1812, but I’m hungry and the city of Philadelphia is commandeering my attention. So here’s some pictures instead: