A capital time at the Capitol

Have you ever wondered who those people on CNN are (and no, I don’t mean James Carville or Tucker Carlson)? Well, chances are, you voted for them in the last election. Instead of watching them on the television screens in the Media and Public Affairs building, I decided it was time to see our congressmen in action. So I strapped on my snowshoes and took a trek to the Foggy Bottom Metro stop. Did you really think I would walk to the Capitol?

United States Capitol
Thursday, Feb. 20
12:35 p.m.

Getting to the Capitol is simple – it’s just a short ride on the red line to Union Station. From there, you merely have to look up, see the dome and walk toward it. But let’s backtrack for a minute and discuss the options for a Capitol tour. Basically, you are faced with two choices – you could just go to the Capitol and wait in line with a bunch of tourists or, if you call ahead of time, you can arrange to have someone from a senator’s office take you on a smaller tour.

I decided to go the tourist route, but my travel companions had other ideas. So off we went to the office of their representative, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.). Getting through security was pretty standard. I had to pass through a metal detector and put all of my other belongings onto the belt. Because we had all left our sharp objects at home, it was smooth sailing to the elevator banks, where we encountered our first great mystery – the senators’ elevator. The elevator I’m referring to is not your standard commoners’ elevator. There is one that says “Senators only.” How can elevators tell if you’re a senator or not? As we pondered that, we headed to Sen. Dorgan’s office. Because the senator was gone for the week, his office was relatively quiet and they fit us into a tour scheduled for 2 p.m. It was only 1:40, so what does any college student do to kill time? Eat!

We headed for the cafeteria, located on the ground floor of the building, and quickly bought some food. If you’re ever there, I highly recommend the french fries.

Back upstairs, we met with our tour guide, an assistant in Sen. Dorgan’s office. She supplied us with baseball trading cards of the senator, which are becoming rare because the senators stopped printing the cards after budget cutbacks took place in 1998. After we met our fellow tourmates, a family from Connecticut, we headed back to the elevators.

We walked to the basement, where we hit a second security checkpoint. Oddly enough, this was my favorite part of the tour. The basement is a behind-the-scenes look at life in the Capitol, with garbage bags strewn about, vending machines and temporary headquarters set up for Senators in between offices. We boarded a mini-Metro to start our actual tour.

Our first stop was the rotunda. The amount of artwork and history under this one small space is incredible. In “The Apotheosis of Washington” by Constantino Brumidi, George Washington is surrounded by 13 angelic creatures, representing each of the original colonies. Paintings adorn the walls, depicting different scenes in American history, as statues pay tribute to national heroes and icons.

We proceeded into an adjacent room, this one filled with statues from various states. Each state is given permission to display up to two statues, following certain guidelines, with any historical figure it believes has played an important role in their history. Pennsylvania, for example, had a statue of General Muhlenberg of the Continental Army, and North Dakota will soon be creating a statue of Sacagawea.

Next we went downstairs to visit George Washington’s empty tomb. Lying supposedly at the center of Washington, D.C., this tomb was intended for the first president, but Washington did not wish to be buried there. His children followed his orders to have him and Martha buried at their Mount Vernon estate.

The Senate vestibule followed, and our tour guide pointed out the cornhusks on the pillars. Apparently Benjamin Franklin felt corn was a patriotic food and decided it should be incorporated into the architecture. This disappointed a few North Dakotans on the tour, who were much fonder of wheat.

Our final stop was the Senate chamber, which, if visiting independently, you need separate passes to access. The chamber is much larger and has two levels, one for the press and public (usually) and one for the senators. The architecture of this chamber is amazing as well. If you look up at the ceiling you can see the U.S. seal soaring above your head. A great outing would be to look at a schedule of Senate committee (or sub-committee) hearings and attend one. Unfortunately, Congress was on break this weekend. However, there are several hearings planned for next week that have sparked my interest.

We returned through the garbage-laden route toward our train. On our ride this time around, I noticed all of the state flags zooming past. We headed back to the elevators and, while waiting for ours, we discovered the secret to the senators’ elevator – the little white buttons for the floors are hidden on the right side! So that’s how the elevator can tell if you are really a senator. Happy with our sudden revelation, we headed back toward Sen. Dorgan’s office. For the first time, I took in all of the North Dakotan paintings and statues in the office. We thanked the office staff again for the tour and the trading cards and headed on our way out. All in all, the tour lasted an hour, and it is definitely worth doing. After all, why sit in your dorm reading a textbook when you can live it?

This week’s Senate Committee Hearing schedule
KEY: SD = Dirksen Senate office building | SH = Hart Senate office building

Tuesday, Feb. 25
9:30 a.m.
Foreign Relations
Hearings to examine the State of the World Report on Hunger from Africa and North Korea. SH*-216

2:30 p.m
Energy and Natural Resources
Hearings to examine oil, gas, hydrogen and conservation, focusing on gas supply and prices. SD-366

Wednesday, Feb. 26
10:30 a.m.
Foreign Relations
Hearings to examine post-conflict Afghanistan, focusing on
a perspective on revitalization
and reconstruction. SD-419

Thursday, Feb. 27
9:30 a.m.
Foreign Relations
To hold hearings to examine proposed legislation authorizing funds for the Department of State. SD-419

10:00 a.m.
Health, Education, Labor
and Pensions
Hearings to examine the Workforce Investment Act. SD-340

For more committee hearings, including those for the House,

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