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The bells of Congress, they are a-changin’

Architect of the Capitol eyes replacement ‘legislative call system’ of bells and clocks

The Architect of the Capitol is moving forward with plans to replace the bells and clocks of the legislative call system. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
The Architect of the Capitol is moving forward with plans to replace the bells and clocks of the legislative call system. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

There’s a new tempo coming to Capitol Hill, as plans move forward to replace the bells and clocks of the legislative call system. That means the familiar buzzes and blinking lights that have ruled the corridors for years could be changing.

The Architect of the Capitol is looking to commission the development, design and installation of a revamped system. It will work alongside the existing network used to alert members of Congress and staff to action on the floor.

Will it sound the same? That’s not yet clear.

“Our work will allow for future system changes, but there is no impact for the end user at this point,” AOC spokesperson Laura Condeluci told Roll Call.

Chaos might ensue at the Capitol if the old bells were to go offline or new ones were to be tested during a legislative session, signaling nonexistent votes or premature adjournment.

That’s why the AOC is proceeding with caution. The office is currently soliciting contractors, who will face the challenge of installing the new system alongside the current one, without any interruption in service. Congress will be in session during the yearlong project.

“Interruption of legislative business operations is unacceptable,” AOC staff told potential contractors earlier this year.

The historical buildings and tight security will be another consideration for contractor candidates. They won’t be able to cut into walls or run cables or fiber wherever they see fit. Instead, the Architect of the Capitol’s office will provide guidance on how the plans can be executed without disturbing precious bits of American history.

The first phase of the project will include 50 clocks. Future procurements will expand the project to cover the whole Capitol campus, which right now is dotted with about 5,000 legislative call system devices. The AOC is looking for modernization, meaning that the new system needs to be “capable of interfacing with future technologies,” like smartphone apps, for example.

Key to the current system are primary and backup ultra high frequency radio transmitters mounted on the Hart and Russell Senate office buildings that broadcast the legislative action signals across the campus to each device and clock.

The alerts are triggered by a tablet in the House and Senate chambers, operated by the parliamentarians.

According to the AOC’s office, there are parts of campus where coverage is good, and others where it is weaker. The new system will have to reach further than ever before, with the addition of the Ford and O’Neill House office buildings.

A new, parallel system is also part of the contract solicitation — a mobile legislative call system. It needs to be “portable, deployable, scalable, and flexible in its use,” and work over an encrypted wireless connection as opposed to radio frequency.

For whom the bell tolls?

On Capitol Hill, nearly everyone’s schedule is dictated in some way by the buzzing of the bells. When they sound in the pattern that signals a floor vote, committee meetings recess and constituent meetings are delayed. Certain elevators flash “members only,” and lawmakers flock through tunnels and underground trolleys to the chambers to cast their votes.

For those who have been around the Capitol for a while, the buzzers make sense. Some workers whose schedules aren’t dictated by floor action even manage to tune them out. Newcomers and visitors find them, well, alarming.

The congressional legislative call system has a long history. There’s always been a need to inform members of votes and other actions in the chambers. It was all much easier before the House and Senate office buildings were built, when, as rumor has it, a man walked around ringing a physical bell to announce votes.

But in July 1888, the House approved a resolution to add legislative bell signals to the House side of the Capitol to keep members informed of floor proceedings. When the Cannon House Office Building opened in 1908, it had bells. When the Russell Building opened on the Senate side a year later, bells were installed to alert senators to quorum calls and votes.

Electric clocks were installed throughout the Capitol campus in the 1960s, and included lights and buzzers indicating floor activity, in addition to the time. After about 40 years, that system started to break down, as high-frequency transmissions started interfering with and degrading the Capitol’s signals, thus disrupting service.

The AOC moved to a wireless system to operate the clocks, which was built parallel to the old one to avoid disruption — just like the planned upgrade is expected to do. The latest system went online in 2005, and the AOC replaced, modified or retrofitted all of the clocks in the House and Senate office buildings and the Capitol.

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