When Congress is away, the people will play. Amid the weekend's historic snowfall and its digging-out aftermath, Washingtonians went to Capitol Hill in droves to enjoy their newfound freedom to sled. It is hard to imagine, when looking out at festive atmosphere on the House side of the grounds on Monday that it took an act of Congress to allow sledding. Congress was not in session, of course. The House was in recess last week, and the Senate left town on Jan. 21, beating the first flakes of the so-called Snowzilla that paralyzed the East Coast and shut down transportation networks across the region.
The House won't cast a vote again until Feb. 1, given the weather and a Democratic retreat in Baltimore. While the Senate won’t be voting until Wednesday, the chamber is still scheduled to gavel in on Tuesday. But given the ongoing snow cleanup efforts, Senate staffers were monitoring the situation before releasing definite plans for the week.
On Monday, the federal government and the D.C. government remained closed. Metro was running a limited service for trains and buses, but by 4 p.m. had opened 79 of its 91 Metrorail stations. All stations, except those on the Silver Line, are expected to open at 5 a.m. Tuesday, with bus service on essential routes. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser advised residents to walk on the sidewalks, not the streets.
The Capitol building itself remained closed Monday, as did the Library of Congress buildings. The Supreme Court, which opened in the morning so justices could release four opinions, closed to the public at noon. The Capitol Visitor Center was closed, and all Capitol tours were canceled.
Capitol Police sealed off some of the grounds Monday, diverting people from the House-side walkway that runs next to Capitol Driveway Southeast down Independence Avenue to entry points closer to the West Front.
Along the West Front, Architect of the Capitol workers plowed a path across the south-side of the lawn with a Bobcat but didn’t interfere with any of the sledding.
Crowds arriving around 8 a.m. Monday, according to Capitol Police officers on duty. Around lunchtime the people numbered around 150-200 and seemed to be predominantly children and parents.
All of this with congressional permission.
Last year in March, neighborhood families defied a decades-old law prohibiting sledding on the grounds, and Capitol Police largely looked the other way. But local officials pushed for that to be official, removing the threat of arrest or ticketing from wintertime fun.
D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., last year had pushed the Capitol Police Board to waive the sledding ban. She was denied in March, but went on to help secure support for a policy rider in the year-end omnibus appropriations bill that stated police should consider "the family-style neighborhood that the Capitol shares with the surrounding community" and not enforce the ban. So the legislative branch and the president signed off on looking the other way. Sledders were free to come on down.
And boy did they. Even during some of the heaviest snowfall on Jan. 23, people came for the slippery, inclined fun.
On Sunday, without the benefit of Metro, which had suspended service throughout the weekend, and with roads at best mildly passable, the pilgrimage to the Hill was in full force.
"They may have fancy sleds, but we have more heart," said one woman, clutching some cardboard siding. The diversity in sledding vehicles was striking: plastic discs, old-style wood and steel "Rosebud" types that wouldn't be out of place in a Norman Rockwell painting, an air mattress, even leftover placards from the Jan. 22 March for Life fished out of the garbage cans lining the Capitol complex.
Snowball fights, nonpartisan of course, broke out at the bottom of the Hill. Some snowboarders carved out some space for themselves. Some enterprising winter athletes fashioned jumps. The House side of the lawn eventually got so crowded in the afternoon that some parents shifted south and established a bunny hill so their kids didn't have to compete with the teenagers and adults dominating the main course.
Inevitably perhaps, folks went from marveling at Sunday's crowds to bemoaning them. "No one sleds there anymore. It's too crowded," Tim Krepp, paraphrasing Yogi Berra, tweeted shortly before noon. Krepp was one of last year's sled-in ringleaders and is a Capitol Hill resident who challenged Norton for her seat in Congress in 2014. He and his family stayed a little while on the West front, then headed to Tunnicliff's for hot chocolate and Irish coffee.
Contacted later and asked if he was surprised at what he helped wrought, Krepp said via email, "I am a little surprised as the Hill, objectively speaking, is not strictly speaking a great sledding Hill. But I think it speaks to its roll as a community gathering space, a place that if you go to it, you will see someone you know. No need to arrange things ahead of time, no coordinating schedules, just show up and you'll see friends and neighbors. We've been cooped up and need a little social interaction. Also, nothing quite gets people to do something like being told they couldn't. There's more than a little defiance here."
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