Staff-Led Tours May Be Hit Hard by CVC

Posted October 17, 2007 at 7:05pm

When the Capitol Visitor Center opens next year, the traditional staff-led tour is likely to be sharply curtailed in favor of professional guides.

And some Members, such as Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.), aren’t very happy about it.

“You are trying to get between me and my constituents, and that won’t be allowed by me,” Capuano said. “If you think you are going to be able to stop it, you’re going to have to have some contingency plan.”

Capuano expressed his dissent during a House Administration hearing on Wednesday that looked at how staff-led tours will operate after the CVC opens in November 2008.

Current plans call for a change from “staff-led” tours to “staff-hosted” tours. All visitors to the Capitol would begin their journey at the CVC and be escorted by a non-Member affiliated guide from the Capitol Guide Service.

If requested, a Congressional staff member also could join in, available to point out particular points of interest to visitors, including statues from the visitor’s state.

This, supporters say, would allow Members to maintain a connection with their constituents while also allowing professional staff to provide accurate, detailed information on the Capitol — and take charge if the need arises.

“Since we will be able to maintain positive communications contact with the tour guides as they move their groups throughout the building, we can provide real-time direction during an emergency,” Capitol Police Chief Phillip Morse told committee members, adding that police will provide training to professional tour guides on evacuation routes and outside assembly areas.

When Members officially commissioned the CVC nearly a decade ago, their goal was to “not only enhance and enrich the visitor’s experience, but also enhance the security of the United States Capitol,” Morse noted.

The goal of the new tour system is not to leave out Members, but rather ensure that the CVC is used to its best ability, House Administration ranking member Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) said.

“We have to realize it’s going to be a totally different operation,” he added. “We’re not doing away with the staff-involved tours. They’re just going to take a different form.”

But many Members remained upset that the new tour method could hinder the personal relationships cultivated by staff-led tours.

Capuano appeared particularly outraged, saying that he does not want Members to develop a bunker mentality when it comes to allowing visitors to tour the Capitol. If current plans are implemented, his staff would continue giving tours anyway, Capuano said.

“What are you going to do? Arrest my staff?” Capuano joked. “Good luck.”

Others are concerned that forcing visitors to enter the Capitol through the CVC could create further problems.

Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.) pointed out that many visitors enter the Capitol complex through office buildings. Forcing people to leave House office buildings and re-enter the Capitol through the CVC could create difficulties, especially during inclement weather, Davis noted.

But security-wise, the CVC is specifically designed to secure the Capitol, and police have recommended it be used in such fashion, Morse said.

“I know that that answer means people might have to [walk] in climates that are sometimes cold and wet and hot, but that’s what that recommendation means,” Morse said.

As for now, staff can take visitors to the Capitol through a tunnel from the Cannon House Office Building, and Davis suggested allowing that to continue.

But that entrance point is hard to secure, Morse noted, and he maintained his recommendation that the CVC be the visitor entrance point to the Capitol building.

“At times, it gets extremely hot. We’ve had people who suffered medical conditions there,” Morse said of the Cannon tunnel entrance. “It gets very cramped … people get claustrophobic.”

Tom Stevens, director of visitor services for the Capitol, noted that the CVC actually could make things easier for visitor-swamped Congressional staffs.

Additional security concerns after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks lessened the number of visitors that official Capitol guides can personally escort through the Capitol, he noted, forcing many constituents to contact their Member for a tour.

“The new Capitol Visitor Center and additional staffing will once again enable us to provide each and every visitor with a professionally trained guide,” Stevens said.

Once the CVC opens, the entire Capitol tour is expected to take more than two hours, said Terrie Rouse, the chief executive officer of the CVC. If tours are managed by professional guides, staffers can meet up at important points during the tour rather than give up valued time, Rouse noted.

“We’re trying to help them,” she said. “We’re trying to have the ultimate level of flexibility.”