Sunday, June 12, 2011

My Experience with The Hill

I started to spend an hour after school on Tuesdays with the "Abbey Elephants" on account of a cordial invitation from my friend who is the organizer of the club. A good number of the members are actually deep into all the names and frictions of Capitol Hill. I, for one, don't feel a need to know exactly who's going to win in New York-10 or Utah-2 or Arizona-3. I supposed that, though, since we're going to school in Washington, somebody could have a lobbyist for a father, or an advisor to a Senator, the State Department, or even the President. I do have the unique distinction, though, of being one of only two classmates who have voted in a real Statewide Election before college. DC had that April 26th Special Election a mere 9 days after my birthday, and one classmate was 18 before the Midterms back in November 2010.

There's also a Young Dems club competing for the "swing" members. Jacob, the leader of the Dems club, already had a DC-government technocrat, and head of DC's Young Dems organization, speak for the club. This is not to mention the three "Deficit Donut Sales" Jacob had set up. So, to keep the membership rolls afloat, our leader, C., who also interns summers on the Hill, decided to go arrange a tour of the Capitol for us through his grandfather's office in the Senate. His grandfather? I wonder what he does on the Hill. So the date was tentatively set for Monday, June 6. "Rendezvous 10am Hart Senate Building. Take Metro; you won't find parking. Staffers can have snob values, those from some offices more than others; dress in school formals".

The Capitol Police, when outside of the tourist zones, are cordial, and getting into the Senate offices is a mere matter of going through a metal detector and knowing your destination. I had a few minutes to wander through the spacious lobbies of the Hart Senate Building, the most modern of the three. Clad in white marble, it's fortunate for the Senators that pictures of the interior haven't made their way into popular debate. I couldn't find the gold bathroom, though.

In good time, our group was all together; three new graduates (including myself), four rising Seniors, including C., our host and intern, and a rising Junior and his dad the school Disciplinarian. With one elevator ride, which was complemented by the onrush of aides and staffers on every other floor, we arrived one turn and twenty steps from our Senator's office. Inside the glass door, an enthusiastic aide sat us in the conference room, our envoy filling most of the seats at the oval table. She then closed the door. On one wall were images of Arizona, just one of the Grand Canyon, but which, all in their own right, "makes me want to go there", commented a classmate. On the opposite wall is a detailed paper map of Arizona, ready to be inked and delineated, it seemed. Opposite the head of the table is the State Seal and Flag, and on the fourth wall, a table bearing a TV, and a framed letter congratulating the Senator for his support of the Ballistic Missile Program. The clock on the wall had a little yellow light that flashed every thirty seconds, and two seconds before the minute as well. Our leader, C., commented with a sense of peeve that "leadership groups" regularly come into the office and ask, sometimes almost demand, that they see the Senator. "This meeting", our leader commented, "was scheduled a month ahead of time and around the Senator's schedule".

At 10:05am, Senator Kyl (R-AZ) opened the opaque door from his suite of offices and walked the two steps to his seat. All of us, seated and passing the breeze, shot up to standing position, as fast as we ever did, in utmost respect. He must have been at ease, with none of us lugging a laptop or scribbling onto a steno pad or wearing press credentials. Any political gaffe he had with us would have not hit the newsstands. Senator introduced himself, and then went around the table to each person, asking their name and shaking their hand with a firm grip. He walked with sprite in his step and appeared to us as sharp and engaged. When he got around to our classmate, intern, and leader, the two broke into a hug preceded by the familiar title, "Grampa!" Well, yes, even Senators have grandchildren.

Senator Kyl laid out to us the generalities of his life as a Senator: "Fly in Sunday some business on Monday...Shorter sessions on Mondays and Fridays...Spend most of midweek in committee when we're not in session...Fly home Friday evening...I enjoy it, though". Despite his responsibilities as not only a Senator but the Senate Minority Whip, he has been keeping part of an eye out on the budding youth political clubs in Arizona as well as ours at St. A's. Asks the Senator: "Do you have a debate team?" "Well",explains one rising Senior, "we have a Model UN team". Says Sen. Kyl: "Get a debate team; tell the Headmaster that a Senator told you so". He goes on addressing his grandson: "and you and Jacob should put together a debate on some political topic. And just as long as you know that it's just for fun; I mean, take it seriously though; you won't have any of the lasting contention that your school is afraid of".

"Any Questions?", Senator Kyl asks. F-Dogg brings up the first, "I'm interested in your point of view on what role the Government should have in business". Sen. replies that this is an "interesting question which the government has been dealing with for at least the past hundred years; and now especially with this current Obama administration and the unprecedented actions taken by Congress in the has become a very important question". "Take GM, for example. We did it by fiat rather than by the bankruptcy rules, and that is where it gets messy. Look at who got left behind; the everyday people with the million dollar or so liability claims- left out in the rush". He continues: "The biggest thing, mediawise, that'll be going on this week in the Senate is the Debit Card Rule. From my perspective, banks aren't utilities; so we really should try to keep out of the way..." Sen. Kyl does appear to become passionate about topics he has a strong opinion about.

The next question came from me, about what it took to get where he is today. "Twenty years as an attorney; then I ran for Representative, and I won that. Eight years, and then the Senate race. Not too many primaries; when they did happen it was pretty straightforward; Arizona is strongly Republican". "My advice for anyone contemplating running for office is to live life a bit; don't go straight into it right out of college". "Connecting with the voters is very important, too. Obama was on top of that...he'd have a rally and then he'd tell everyone in the crowd to text him, and then he'd get the information of hundred, thousands of people all like that. McCain had issues with that; Obama's supporters would get customized emails, like, "Dear Chris...can you help us out?", and McCain's emails would say, "Dear Voter". That's what we got to work on in this next election". A staffer came in with a camera, and posed us flanking the Senator. "Will sign and send to you", the boss announced. We then carried on. How much does a Senate bid cost? "Last election, 15 million dollars".

A staffer knocked on the door. "Come in", said the Senator. Poking her head in, she announced that the PM of Singapore had arrived and was seated in the Senator's office. Says the Senator, "Pleasure to have spent the time with you". "Thank you, Senator". Taking the elevator to the Basement, I remarked, "Can't believe it; just spent 25 minutes with the Senator Jon Kyl, and we aren't even political assets". That chum time with the Senator at his office, indeed, may have been priceless. How many high school groups can actually make that happen? Let's see; St. Alban's, G-Prep, Gonzaga; but the list is short and their guest lists, from what I sense, would be politically driven. Ahhh...

These days, the entire Capitol building is restricted to staff or staff-escorts. Tourists arriving through the Visitor Center are issued "Visitor" passes, which lets them tour designated areas with a tour guide. This pass does not cover the Senate subway, to the chagrin of what I guess is at least a hundred visitors a month. Is that because there is the potential of constituents finding themselves in a capsule with too much concentration of power in one confined space? Fortunately, our envoy received "Official Business Escorted" passes, which allowed us to go wherever a higher-up (intern or greater) would take us. That includes the subway. Our host and intern told us the story about the intern who took his friends on a three-hour thrill ride on the three different subway lines.

Still, there were some areas off-limits to us and to C.: in Hill lingo/jargon,these areas are called APO: Authorized Persons Only. This designation covers other Members' offices inside the Capitol, not in the least Speaker of the House John Boener's well-marked office near the Rotunda. According to our host and intern, "you'd just run into a bunch of cops if you went in there".

After getting properly credentialed, and having all our carry-along items probed by a chemical sensor, our group boarded the automated Hart-Dirksen Subway. The trains arrived with clockwork regularity. Each car on the train held about 8 people each; maybe 7 Senators, as well as the Senate Seal, emblazoned in the center of the car. It was a smooth ride, and the flags of every state provided a change of scene from the sparkling white fluorescent walls of the tunnels. Soon enough, we were in the "tourist" part of the tour; we visited the Brumidi ceilings, the old Supreme Court chambers, State Statues, two from each State, and the stairway where contentions used to be settled with duels. With a few turns and two stairwells, we were in the Senate Minority Whip's well-apportioned office; magazines galore. (In contrast, most Senator's Capitol offices are a simple hide-away room when one wants peace from the press). In good order, though, our next guide arrived to escort us through the Right-wing Caucus Room, and onto the Senate floor. Haven't read Time Magazine in a while.

I tell you, what thrilled me the most were the "inside" parts of the tour. A few of my classmates and I were able to snap a photo from the Senate floor before we were told that Senator-eye point of view photography was not permitted. A classmate flipped through Harry Reid's copy of that day's Order of Business. That was as far left into the chamber as we were led.

There were other young people denizening the chamber: two members of the Congressional Page School spread themselves and their study materials out on the floor right under Senate Minority Leader's Mitch McConnell's chair. To clarify things up, the chamber was empty that morning, as it is most Monday mornings and Friday afternoons. According to our floor guide, "the only time that the Senators are usually all together is during voting". Rush to the vote they do: there is usually one elevator in each bank of elevators that is reserved for Senators (and their invited guests) only. To keep the exclusivity, most of these elevators are staffed. (These days, most of the other elevators are self-service). In a time frame before and after voting sessions, the Senate Subways are reserved for Senators only- the mere hundred of them. Less endowed staffers get to hike it, or wait out the time. Everyone- save some interns and tourists- knows their place in the hierarchy.

Our intern gave us some anecdotes about life in the Senate: about the "candy desk", and the Senate dining room. The most recent (and second) time our intern dined there, our Senator passed him and his companion off to the dining staff as "press". Which brings us to lunch time at 1pm; a traditional time for the Hill to go lunching. (My Mom works in the neighborhood; she knows to lunch before 1pm). For something different, our intern took us off the Hill to the Good Stuff Eatery. That was when I had to split; but, what an adventure.

Oh, and before we left the grounds, our intern collected our spiffy-looking credentials, counting them up to return to a security desk. If anything, it's the staff who feels the pressure for returning the creds: like in many homes, the guests hardly get flack; it's the hosts who do. What I did get as a souvenir is a gold-embossed calling card. The other trinkets, I can get those at the gift shop, any day.

The Senate Dining Room Menu: Bean Soup is Available Every Day.

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