Oh, vanity, thy name is the ID badge.
Some observers of Capitol Hill might think that power and position are simple things, based on status, seniority and face recognition on the Sunday morning talk shows.
Theyve never seen true vanity, though, until they walk through the doors of the House and Senate ID offices. Here is the great equalizer, where everyone, from Senators to committee staff members to lowly interns, must enter and wait in line for their ID badges. Then they must suffer the indignity of a photo and receive a badge that, depending on its color scheme, instantly reflects whether youre Someone or Nobody.
The Senate ID office issues 40,000 badges per Congress to Senators, staff and journalists. The House office passes out 30,000 badges to staff as well as Architect of the Capitol employees and contractors.
With those kinds of numbers, theres no time for hierarchy, Senate ID office supervisor Sam Jacobs said. I dont care if youre the chief of staff or an intern from Topeka, we treat everyone the same. Straight up.
Some staff will call and tell us that Senator so-and-so is coming down to get a new badge, like were going to do something different when they come. We dont, Jacobs said. We use the same light and the same camera.
That doesnt prevent the bigger-ego types from trying, he said. The men get so into how they look in their photo. They definitely ask for more retakes, Jacobs said, rolling his eyes and smiling. Hes unsympathetic. Its not a glamour shot. Its a security tool to get people in and out of the buildings.
Television journalists are reliably among the most high-maintenance, Jacobs said, and so are the name-dropping staffers.
Another part of the struggle for status involves the different sorts of badges available. Staffers can get one of two different badges. A green badge provides 24-hour access seven days a week, while a red badge permits access from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week, hardly enough, in some staffers eyes, to show just how essential they might be. Each office determines which staffer gets which badge, and often, interns and junior staffers are issued the limited-access passes. No one is happy to receive the scarlet letter badge.
Its badge envy around here, Jacobs said of the Senate ID office, which is tucked away in the basement of the Dirksen Senate Office Building and is a no-frills spot equipped with three cameras and a few couches for waiting customers. We call it the greening of the Senate. Everyone wants a green badge.
The same badge envy is rampant on the House side, where hundreds of interns flock to the Cannon office at the beginning of every summer. But because House Members dont receive actual badges (their electronic voting cards double as IDs), and the high-maintenance press corps gets their badges on the Senate side, the pandering is a little more understated.
We used to deal with a lot of lobbyists, who were kind of jittery, said Melissa Franger, director of the House ID office. The K Street crowd always seemed to be in a rush.
Lobbyists are no longer issued badges, and any member of the public can enter the Capitol office buildings sans red or green pass. Staffers, who have access to private meeting rooms and the Capitol, however, must wear their badges at all times.
Franger pointed out that while some might see ID badges as a status symbol, to her, theyre a basic security measure.
For the police, we have to make the IDs stand out, she said. We use these IDs to get in and out of the buildings. Its a security issue.
Franger is a 15-year veteran of the House ID office. She has befriended other longtime Hill staffers who enter her office every Congress for a new ID. Jacobs, likewise, sees many of the same people every two years, and he often strikes up old conversations with his repeat customers.
While Franger sticks to procedure and is very matter-of-fact about her daily routine, she has come to realize how special IDs are to the thousands of Hill staffers she serves.
In fact, the value of an ID badge is so great to some staffers that they have been known to use them as a bargaining tool.
One staffer tried to trade his badge for a pizza, Jacobs said. The deliveryman did take the card, but then decided to call the ID office to return it.
And some badge aficionados have tried to play the love connection with the IDs.
Ive gotten more than one call from guys who found a lost badge, and wanted to return it, but wanted to meet the cute girl in the picture first, Jacobs added.
The House and Senate offices share the perennial battle of retrieving the badges of exiting staffers and interns, who are required to return their IDs. Staffers and interns become so attached to their beloved ID whether for the great picture or 24-hour access they often conveniently forget to hand it over.
Jacobs, who has seen interns pull the same tricks in order to keep their IDs, is still surprised by the affection that, unlike a Congressional badge, never expires.
I dont know if its the power they feel, but Im amazed by it, he said.