Capitol Visitors Get That Caged-In Feeling

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A hush falls over a group of tourists in Statuary Hall as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, surrounded by a knot of Capitol denizens, moves through the gilded chamber on the way to her office.

Such by-chance encounters with the powerful used to be the norm in the U.S. Capitol as ordinary people strolled the hallways, day and night, witnessing the workaday world that goes on under that famous dome. No longer. Now, the public sees the Capitol in something of a gilded cage.

Security concerns, swelling crowds and the wish to keep the public at some remove mean average people aren't allowed to hang out the Capitol for long. For any single citizen, the chance of seeing something unscripted like Pelosi's appearance is rarer than ever.

Instead, a standard tour now means spending a half hour or so under the same roof as the lawmaking House and Senate and the rest of the time in the $600 million Capitol Visitors Center, a massive secure structure built underground and next to the real thing.

That sits fine with many lawmakers and their aides. Back when visitors could roam with a guide -- and before that, on their own -- it was not unusual for the public to share hallways, elevators and even bathrooms with members of Congress rushing about their business.

"In the summertime, because of the high humidity and how hot it gets here, you could literally smell the tourists coming into the Capitol," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said during a ceremony celebrating the opening of the 580,000 square-foot visitor center in 2008.

That remark was meant to express sympathy with the masses who used to have to line up outside in sweltering weather. But it sounded elitist, and Reid's Republican opponent in the Nevada Senate race this fall has seized on it.

Nowadays, the standard tour of the Capitol itself lasts about 35 minutes and can consist mainly of guided visits to the Rotunda and Statuary Hall, which was the original House chamber before the two outside wings were added to the building in the 1850s. At low attendance periods, visitors also may be shown the Old Senate Chamber just off the Rotunda and the original Supreme Court chamber on the ground floor.

The House and Senate chambers are off-limits to the main tour. Visitors can get tickets to the chamber galleries separately -- through the offices of their congressmen or senators. The public can also sign up for a tour of historic hallways, which include the ornate Brumidi corridor on the ground floor of the Senate.

Hours, however, can easily be spent in the cool vastness of the three-story visitor center beneath the Capitol's heavily guarded East Front. Designed with 26 bathrooms, movie theaters, a pricey cafeteria, two gift shops and a massive Exhibition Hall museum, the center is big enough to handle comfortably the 4 million visitors since its December 2008 opening.

"It was really informative and I am glad I came," said Matt DeBerge, 26, of Hanover, N.H. Still, he had expected to be able to see the chambers where laws are made." Not knowing about the bifurcated system in advance "is probably our fault."

So vast is the CVC that visitors can spend hours there without knowing that they are sharing the underground building with policy makers using studios and secure rooms beyond doors with forbidding warnings. On the summer day the House ethics committee met in one room on the fate of embattled Rep. Charlie Rangel, an Associated Press reporter heading there found herself sharing an elevator with CIA Director Leon Panetta -- who in turn was on his way to a classified briefing elsewhere in the underground complex.

All the while, thousands of unknowing visitors milled around under the same roof.

Pelosi marveled this week at the size of the new television studio during her first news conference there on Thursday. "It certainly is less claustrophobic" than the intimate Capitol parlor in which she typically holds such sessions. She joked too, about leaving breadcrumbs to help find her way back to the Capitol.

Security was the driving force behind the setup and much of the reason its cost more than doubled from original estimates.

The 1998 murders of two Capitol police officers by a gunman who simply ran inside a doorway prompted Congress to devote $100 million of the $265 million estimated cost at that time. Private donations, sales and other fundraising steps were expected to pay for the rest, said Tom Fontana, speaking for the visitors center.

Then the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks demonstrated a need for a whole different level of security and the cost ballooned.

Before the visitors center, the public had to line up outside, sometimes in bad weather for hours, with few or no bathrooms handy.

Now, a visit begins with more modest lines along a slope from street level to the below-ground doors and the standard security sweep inside. Then it's a stop at the ticket counter for a lapel sticker with a bar code, and a usually brief wait in line for a 13-minute orientation film.

"Out of Many, One," is a solemn but optimistic look at the nation and its founders, with an acknowledgment that the United States took shape "not easily and not quietly."

"It was rah-rah, but that's what you'd expect," said Setareh Gable, 44, of Dallas, who took the tour this month with her family. "It's appropriate."

Throughout the tour, there are ample reminders of the nation's founding irony: The Capitol was built by slaves as a temple to liberty.

Attendance has soared. One million visitors toured the facility in its first five months compared with 467,800 who toured the Capitol during the same period a year earlier.

Gable's group was guided out of the theater and up a flight of stairs to meet a red-coated tour guide who handed out earphones with receivers linked to his microphone. With these, visitors can hear their guides without anyone shouting. Before, the cacophony in the soaring historic spaces could be deafening.

The tour consisted mostly of briefings on two rooms -- the Rotunda and Statuary Hall -- with little or no commentary on the other spaces through which the group walked.

Moving between the two halls, one person glanced to her left, noticed the plaque above Pelosi's door and tapped the shoulder of a man nearby. He peered into the vestibule outside the suite and tried to see down the scarlet-carpeted hallway beyond.

The House wasn't in session, so there was no Pelosi or anyone else famous to be seen.

The guides' training is also more standardized now, so there's no more stating as fact the fictional tale of John Quincy Adams feigning sleep in Statuary Hall to eavesdrop on his opponents via the room's strange acoustics. A guide on one recent tour told the tall tale, but made clear that's all it was.

Despite all of the control, chances to catch a glimpse of lawmakers, visiting heads of state, Cabinet members and other VIPs still exist, primarily in the central, oldest section of the Capitol.

The Rotunda still is the most direct route between Pelosi's office and Reid's on the far side of the building. The two have been known to pause behind a statue to chat privately before crossing the Rotunda and attracting attention.

Officials are fond of telling about the time, pre-visitors center, when Pelosi crossed the Rotunda and a tour guide announced:

"Folks, there goes Barbara Boxer, the first woman Speaker of the House!"

Boxer, also a petite California Democrat, is a member of the Senate.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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