CVC Watch

Posted January 14, 2008 at 6:41pm

The debate over whether staffers will continue to give tours of the Capitol once the Capitol Visitor Center opens in November appears to be over. And it seems the Members appear to have won.

[IMGCAP(1)]Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) quietly inserted two sentences into the fiscal 2008 appropriations omnibus bill passed by Congress last month prohibiting the Architect of the Capitol, U.S. Capitol Guide Service and Congressional Special Services Office from eliminating staff-led Capitol tours.

The language comes after hundreds of Members in both chambers balked at a plan introduced by AOC officials requiring that all Capitol tours be led by the official Capitol guides, with Congressional staffers coming along to point out specific artifacts, and only if requested.

More than 110 Representatives and more than 45 Senators signed onto a letter opposing the AOC plan, writing that it would take away from the personal contact Member offices and their constituents make through the tours.

“The language in the approps bill is just another step in stating how serious they are,” said John Bowman, chief of staff for Wasserman Schultz, the chairwoman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch.

According to the language, the only way staff-led tours could be removed is if the Capitol Police Board seeks to temporarily suspend or restrict tours because of security reasons.

Indeed, the language in the bill report specifies that “no action” can be taken to eliminate staff-led tours.

It is now up to Terrie Rouse, CVC chief executive officer for visitor services, to figure out exactly how staff-led tours will operate once the facility opens.

The bill report language instructs Rouse to present a plan to appropriators that would allow for continuation of the tours, and she has 60 days from the time the omnibus bill became law on Dec. 26 to submit her ideas.

Rouse and other AOC officials are working with their oversight committees to come up with a tour plan, spokeswoman Eva Malecki confirmed Monday. While Rouse’s decision remains up in the air, what she can’t do is clear, Bowman said.

“You can’t create any tours that staff will [only] accompany,” he said, referring to the previous plan that only permitted staffers to accompany Capitol guides. “You can’t eliminate any guided tours led by staffers or interns,” he added.

The idea behind the original AOC plan — which was supported by Capitol Police Chief Phillip Morse — was that all visitors would be screened at the CVC, a central place designed to take in thousands of people daily.

Crowded public screening points at the Cannon House Office Building and Russell Senate Office Building would be eliminated, and Capitol guides would be trained to help escort visitors out of the Capitol during an emergency.

That plan was fiercely debated during a House Administration Committee hearing in the fall, and Wasserman Schultz further criticized it during a CVC oversight hearing in November.

While security is paramount, the personal Member-constituent interaction created by the staff-led tours, along with logistical concerns for constituents who might not wish to enter through the CVC, must also be addressed, Wasserman Schultz said at the time.

The tour issue is far from over, however, as Members still must agree to an ultimate tour plan.

Members of the House Administration Committee, the panel that will have jurisdiction over the CVC once it opens, said in a statement on Monday that their first priority remains “the safety and security of the visitors, Members and staff who work on Capitol Hill.”

“In response to overwhelming Member support of the continuation of staff-led tours, we are committed to working with the Senate and the AOC to ensure that we can continue to allow staff led tours in a way that ensures safety and security,” the statement said.

One tour-related concern might be settled: During the debate over the tours, Guide Service officials told Members that some staffers provide inaccurate information to constituents during Capitol tours, with many misidentifying artifacts, for example.

Members seemed to address that in the bill report by requiring that all staffers who give tours of the Capitol receive training on the history of the building and Congress.

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With much of the remaining work at the CVC focusing on tests of the facility’s complex fire and life-safety systems, there isn’t a whole lot of construction news these days. So, CVC Watch now will be published once every two weeks.

After the testing ends and preparations for a November opening begin, CVC Watch could return to weekly status. Stay tuned.