Capitol Campus Jumps Back to Life

Posted October 17, 2013 at 3:59pm

Normalcy returned to the Capitol campus on Thursday — the Ohio Clock began ticking, tour guides circled the Rotunda and gardeners from the Architect of the Capitol trimmed grass that sprouted during the 16 days the federal government was shut down.

“Perfect timing,” said tourist Tania Johnson, who had arrived Wednesday on a flight from southern California for her first visit to Washington, D.C. Johnson and her husband, Joe, arrived on the grounds in time to join the Capitol Visitor Center’s first tour at 8:50 a.m. on Thursday morning.

“We debated for two weeks whether to cancel it or not, but that would have cost us about $1,000,” she said, joking that they were considering buying lottery tickets after the good fortune of having a deal to reopen the government signed by the president mere hours before their planned visit.

The continuing resolution that passed both chambers Wednesday night cleared the way for legislative branch employees and services around Capitol Hill to return to a normal work schedule.

CVC tour guides, normally a visible fixture of the halls of the Capitol in their bright red blazers, disappeared from the campus as part of the reduced operations plan that cut the Capitol workforce to skeletal staff levels. As a result of the furloughs, only member-led tours were allowed.

“We’re very happy to be back at full forces,” said CVC spokesperson Tom Fontana. More than 6,000 tourists had reservations for Thursday, including a group of 150 World War II veterans from Texas who fanned out across Statuary Hall in matching red polo shirts by 9:15 a.m. Some wheelchair-bound veterans cleared a path for the staffers clipping through the marble corridor, but the halls were for the most part quiet after Wednesday’s dramatic, late-night session.

After the legislation passed, Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer sent messages notifying employees that they should return to work Thursday. Gainer also put out the word on Twitter, Facebook, internal sites and through the SAA’s phone tree.

“While we might not be at 100 percent at this moment, we are darn close and fully prepared to answer any bell,” Gainer said Thursday in an email. As for the paychecks that would normally hit bank accounts on Friday, Gainer warned his staff that they may be delayed by a few days, but said everyone should be paid by early next week.

On the House side, staffers buzzed in and out of the office supply store operated in the Longworth basement by the House Chief Administrative Officer. Throughout the morning they grabbed stacks of printer paper, pens and binders from the previously shuttered storefront to restock empty offices.

The House Stationary Shop and Gift Shop were also opened to customers, and a cart full of red, white and blue packages was ready to go outside the Flag Office in the Capitol basement.

But those looking to grab lunch in the Rayburn Deli, or ice cream at the Longworth Creamery were out of luck. The dining services closed during the shutdown will remain out of service until Oct. 21.

The air outside Rayburn carried the scent of fresh-cut grass as AOC employees got to work neatening up grass on the sidewalk. A member of the gardening team pushed a lawn mower in a neat row through the lawn of the horseshoe-shaped drive.

Shortly after noon, one of the most iconic faces of the shutdown — the Senate chamber’s famed Ohio Clock — swung back in action. The clock froze at 12:15 p.m. on Oct. 9 as a result of furloughs of the staff Senate curators charged with maintaining its tick.

To the delight of a crowd of photographers crowded around the ancient timepiece, Museum Specialist Richard Doerner, climbed three steps of a silver stepladder to wind the clock’s hands, then slipped off an ornate wooden cover reached a glove hand into the mechanism.

The pendulum swung back into motion at 12:20 p.m.