White House Tours Elusive, Hill Gripes

Posted July 2, 2004 at 5:35pm

Ten months after the White House reopened to public visitors, Congressional aides complain that new security measures for East Wing tours — much in demand by out-of-town visitors — have led to widespread confusion and have forced Capitol Hill offices to turn away constituents seeking the passes.

The aides blame a rigid scheduling system that essentially forces Congressional offices to arrange tours six months in advance — long before most families or school groups have finalized plans to visit the capital.

Adding to the difficulty, the new rules also require a minimum of 10 persons in each tour group. Congressional aides responsible for arranging the White House visits say groups that size are rare.

“You’ve either got to have a family from the district that has [at least] eight children, or you have to group families together,” said an aide to one Republican lawmaker from the Southeast.

White House officials, mindful of the frustration that exists, have quietly encouraged Congressional offices to book incomplete groups, and then barter with other Hill offices to cobble together a group that meets White House requirements.

White House officials say efforts to accommodate tour groups have continued to evolve since the public was readmitted to the East Wing last September, roughly two years after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington that shelved public access in the first place.

In recent weeks, the White House has attempted to cope with the demand by adding an additional hour to the regular tour schedule.

“This is the people’s house, and this administration definitely wants to make tours available to as many people as possible,” said Erin Healy, a White House spokeswoman.

But Healy also acknowledged that security measures have forced limitations on what is prudent. Those measures include the decision to close off Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest in front of the White House — a move that has prevented tourists from exiting the White House at the North Gate. Instead, visitors have to both enter and leave at the East Gate, which creates a greater security burden.

Healy said White House officials are continuing to consider steps that would allow a greater number of visitors “while also keeping an eye on safety and security.”

In the meantime, offices on Capitol Hill, which arrange all White House tours, are struggling to work within the system. An e-mail chain obtained by Roll Call that circulated among Republican legislative directors in recent weeks suggested that scores of offices had found the scheduling process almost impenetrable.

“We have had a very tough time getting tours,” an aide to one Wisconsin lawmaker said. “I think since they changed to this group of at least 10 … we’ve maybe gotten three tours. That’s it.”

An aide to one Colorado lawmaker said that tours have been “hard to get” and that the tours are sometimes cancelled on short notice “even if they have been ‘confirmed.’ We’ve had this happen to us on a number of occasions now, most recently with some actual World War II vets in town for the WWII dedication. And frankly, it’s a little embarrassing.”

Some aides have taken the hurdles in stride. “It’s a different day. It’s a different age — I don’t like waiting in line at the airport, either,” said Dave Heil, chief of staff to Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.).

“When constituents call us, we just try to keep expectations low,” added Heil, who estimated that his office succeeds at scheduling its tours about 40 percent of the time. “Tell them what the chances are up front. That’s the best way to deal with it.”

White House tours were shut down indefinitely in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, but the Bush administration soon adjusted the rules to allow visits by veterans and school groups.

Other arrangements have been in place for Members of Congress, who can personally escort groups as large as six.

The new rules on tour size and scheduling were intended to keep the tour system orderly and to manage the demand under the new, tighter security.

Congressional offices can reserve tours as long as six months in advance, but the fact that passes are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis has essentially forced schedulers to observe that lead time.

Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas), who shepherds constituents through the East Wing every morning that he is in Washington, said he has had tours cancelled on him, but he gets the impression that the White House has sought to accommodate him “every way they could.”

“Sometimes I feel I’ve got more friends over there than at the Capitol,” Hall said, alluding to anger among many Democratic lawmakers after his decision to switch parties early this year.