Claude Khalife: An ugly view inside the Capitol

There are few sights in D.C. more beautiful than the Capitol at night. But a walk inside should make you wince.

As a freshman, I was captivated to ascend up the steps of the Capitol South Metro stop on my way to observe the American system firsthand – held up by scholars across the world as a testament to the power of free elections and democratic governance.

This was the night to see it in action, I thought. The House of Representatives would vote on whether or not to approve the Senate budget, signaling whether our government would remain open or continue to succumb to partisan politics between our two parties.

As my friend and I entered the building and passed through security, it was tough to keep my D.C. pride in check. For many students, we come to GW to get these kinds of experiences. Our University identity is partially based on our proximity to important leaders deciding important things.

But what I watched seemed far from the grandiose images found in the University’s brochures.

When I finally took my seat in the gallery above the floor, I took a minute to look around. Then, I looked down.

Naïvely, I hoped to see a chamber full of men and women in pleated, finely starched suits, looking attentively on as their fellow officeholders spoke. Evidently, this was too idealistic: The shock of seeing a nearly empty chamber took me aback.

On this night, the nation was holding its collective breath. Countless government workers were wondering if a furlough was on their horizon. People feared that America’s positive image was at stake across the world.

Meanwhile, the congressman below me was playing what looked suspiciously like a game of Candy Crush on his iPhone. Three Republicans lounged in the back, snickering to each other as a Democrat gave an impassioned speech, seemingly to himself.

This punched the naïveté right out of me.

Other people observing from the gallery commented on the faint smell of popcorn that wafted up from below. As the Democrat stepped down, there was a smattering of applause from the few representatives on her side of the aisle. Then a Republican rose to speak, and the Democrats immediately plastered bored, annoyed expressions on their faces.

This cycle continued for three hours. I learned that the cameras of CSPAN and CNN do not do the Congress justice. They do not show the absence of the vast majority of our elected officials during these important debates. They can’t pick up the feelings of apathy and resignation that seemed omnipresent from my vantage point.

The government shutdown is a shameful embarrassment for all of us. It’s a representation of the failure of the officials we are supposed to trust. Though it seems like in recent hours, leaders have decided to negotiate, it’s taken far too long.

For days, political leaders chose to put their hands over their ears, turn away from negotiation, and eat popcorn as our nation shivers and waits for a resolution. That’s unforgivable, even if progress seems imminent soon.

If you have not seen the Capitol at night, you are missing out. But before you step inside, make sure you take off your rose-colored glasses. I learned that lesson the hard way.

The writer is a freshman majoring in international affairs.

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