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Capitol Tour Overhaul Could Include Ending Staff-Led Visits

Citing concerns over quality, Congressional officials said Wednesday they are considering a range of options to improve tours of the Capitol, including the possible elimination of staff-led tours.

“We are working both the House and the Senate … with the guide service to come up with an alternative or something that will make it a more enjoyable experience,” Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Pickle testified Wednesday during a hearing of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch.

Although up to 8,000 visitors may tour the Capitol daily, only a fraction are led by a member of the Capitol Guide Service, the professional tour unit that operates under the direction of the Capitol Guide Board.

Instead, the majority of visitors, about 6,000, take part in tours led by Congressional staff, many of whom may be relatively new to Capitol Hill.

While Pickle offered praise to those who take on the role of tour guide for their offices — “The young staffers do a wonderful job,” he said following the hearing — he asserted that leading a tour with up to 15 visitors can still be a difficult task for those employees. “These young staffers are not trained to do that,” he added.

“Six-thousand out of 8,000 people don’t get the optimum tour,” said Pickle, who chairs the Capitol Guide Board.

In addition, Pickle noted, the tours, which are scheduled individually by each office, add to the congestion and crowding in the Capitol. House Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood, who serves on the board with Pickle and the Architect of the Capitol, acknowledged his office has recently delayed staff-led tours from entering the Capitol to comply with the building’s capacity limitations.

Among the options now under consideration, Pickle said, is having trained guides provide all tours of the Capitol, a situation he described as “ideal.”

“Our tour guides are outstanding,” Pickle said.

But he added that other options are also being examined by the board, such as additional training for Congressional staff assigned to provide tours.

Currently, the Capitol Guide Service provides a two-and-a-half-hour training course to interested House and Senate staff, covering basic history of the Capitol as well as speaking techniques and evacuation procedures.

Although the guide service recommends the course for would-be tour guides, there is no requirement that staff complete the course before taking visitors through the building.

By comparison, guide service employees are required to complete 40 to 50 hours of instruction in a one-week period, although guides may spend years studying the Capitol and its artwork, including those areas outside of the basic tour, which centers on the Rotunda and the Crypt.

Officials also acknowledged they are looking ahead to the opening of the Capitol Visitor Center, expected sometime from fall 2006 to early 2007.

“The role of the tour guide service will expand dramatically with the CVC,” Pickle testified. The three-story subterranean structure, currently under construction on the Capitol’s East Front, will include new amenities for visitors such as a cafeteria and exhibition areas.

Although the guide service is not seeking any additional employees in its $4.1 million request for fiscal 2006, Pickle said a study by an outside consulting firm suggested the organization may need to expand from the approximately 70 current employees to more than 160 to support the visitor center.

“It’s going to be a challenging year … as we prepare for next year,” Pickle said.

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