Capitol Workforce, Visitors Adjust to Shutdown Normal

Posted October 1, 2013 at 4:18pm

As the sun rose Tuesday morning, employees of the Architect of the Capitol’s grounds division scraped litter from the sidewalk, placing it in five-gallon buckets. Under shutdown protocol, four employees fanned out over the 300-acre campus, charged with protecting the public health from the risk of rats that might be drawn to stray trash.

Just like other parts of the federal government that slipped into reduced operations on Tuesday, the Capitol workforce grappled with having to make do with fewer employees for the length of the government shutdown.

Operations were “sort of stressful” for Carolyn Adams, an assistant supervisor in the AOC’s labor division. Normally she works with a crew of 14, but the number was cut to six as a result of Congress not being able to pass funding for the fiscal year that started Tuesday. Between completing her normal cleaning duties throughout House office buildings, retrieving furniture and other deliveries for members of Congress, checking her phone for emergency maintenance calls, and completing her paperwork responsibilities as a supervisor, Adams’ plate was full.

She assessed the situation as she pulled on a fresh pair of sanitary gloves on the first floor of the Rayburn House Office Building.

“Our bosses have been wonderful” about communicating, Adams said, explaining that her division of the AOC has schedules ready for up to a month of shutdown. “It’s also good that the buildings have emptied out with so much staff being gone.”

In addition to maintenance, dining services were cut — dozens of loaves of bread sat unattended outside the closed Rayburn Deli around noon — and Capitol Police officers manned a reduced number of entries into House and Senate office buildings and allowed only visitors on official business in the Capitol Visitor Center.

Among the first tourists turned away Tuesday morning was a couple visiting from Switzerland. Their plane landed Monday night for a 10-day visit to the District, and they had already booked an early morning tour through the CVC. It was canceled, and their backup plan, the Library of Congress, was closed. The two, who declined to give their names, said they were thinking about “buying a lottery ticket with all their bad luck.”

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., was among the many members spotted leading her own tour. House members could personally accompany groups of 10 or fewer visitors through the Capitol from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Tourists Steve and Michelle Mika, who were visiting from northern Illinois, said they couldn’t help but feel frustrated with Congress as they strolled the Capitol grounds and saw the shutdown up close, calling it an “embarrassment to the country.”

A lone female protester expressed a similar sentiment as she marched around the Capitol with a sign reading, “Stop Acting Like Spoiled Brats.”

Reduced entry points spawned long lines at House office buildings. At 9 a.m., the line to enter the Cannon House Office Building stretched down New Jersey Avenue Southeast, around the corner and up C Street Southeast. Hands holding smartphones popped above the line occasionally, as those waiting snapped photos of the scene.

Close to the door, the Cannon queue split into two separate lanes. Capitol Police waved those in the outside track with staff badges inside in large batches, creating stop-and-go flows, while the inner line of other visitors moved gradually.

“Every day this line takes me two minutes,” said one intern on a House Democrat’s staff, as he clocked 25 minutes of waiting.

Adding to the line were drivers who normally enter through the Cannon garage. No one could park there Tuesday, because the shutdown closed all House-side parking except in the Rayburn and Ford garages, plus lots 1 and 4.

Tuesday taught lobbyist Jeremy Ben-Ami an important lesson about congressional advocacy: Don’t schedule your big day for the end or beginning of the fiscal year.

“We made a never-to-be-repeated mistake,” said Ben-Ami, president of the pro-Israel, pro-peace nonprofit J Street. His goal for the day was organizing the 800 attendees of J Street’s national conference to lobby members of Congress, who were otherwise consumed in the debate about appropriations and the new health care law, which went into effect Tuesday.

Traversing the East Front of the Capitol with a colleague shortly after 1 p.m., in his suit and a lanyard announcing his official business, Ben-Ami sounded relieved to be out in the midday sun after spending much of his morning trying to find an open exit from the House office buildings he had been visiting.

The long lines to enter were not much of an inconvenience, but getting out was tough.

“You figure you would be shut out,” he said with a laugh, “but we were shut in.”