Staff-Led Tours Hit Hard by CVC

Posted January 12, 2009 at 6:15pm

The staff-led tour — with its tailored stops, tall tales and impromptu trips through the Capitol tunnels — is on the endangered list and may be headed toward extinction.

The culprit: the Capitol Visitor Center, a 580,000-square-foot gateway to the Capitol. Specifically designed to handle hordes of tourists, the newly opened CVC is making staff-led tours obsolete and therefore cutting Members out of the process.

Since the CVC opened six weeks ago, CVC officials say about 10 percent of visitors took staff-led tours — compared with an average of 50 percent in the past.

It’s understandable; the CVC is the Disneyland of Congress. It has a cafeteria, an exhibition hall, two gift shops and 26 bathrooms. Most importantly, it allows visitors to book a free tour online — without the hassle of long lines or a call to a Member’s office.

“The process is carved out to see that happen and most people seem to be fine using the [CVC] tour guide,” said Austin Durrer, spokesman for Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), who once introduced a bill to preserve staff-led tours. “Frankly, they do it for a living and they know the Capitol inside and out.”

Durrer said Moran still offers staff-led tours to those who want it. The office also gives every tour a personal touch by having a staffer handle the reservation, rather than sending constituents to the CVC Web site.

But even those who do choose a staff-led tour are sometimes getting something far different than just a few months ago.

For decades, junior staffers or interns have guided constituents through the Capitol on their own schedule and with their own flair.

Many led their groups to the Capitol through the underground tunnels, sometimes getting stuck in long lines for security. Once the tours started, stories would range from little-known facts to widespread myths — such as a rumor that the Statue of Liberty fits in the Rotunda.

The tours could be unorganized and inconsistent. Staffers had to yell to be heard, while visitors inevitably blocked hallways and exits. But they were also unique: Visitors got a tour tailored to their state and their Member.

The CVC has changed all that. For one, most tours — led by a staffer or a guide — follow the same route: Rotunda, Statuary Hall and the Crypt. During the slow winter season, visitors also get a peek at the Old Supreme Court Chambers; if it’s a heavy-traffic day, they’re out of luck.

Tours through the tunnels are now less likely. In a required daylong training class, staffers are highly discouraged from bringing constituents to the CVC through the tunnels. Instead, it is suggested that they meet them inside the CVC or escort them outside to the First Street entrance.

“It kind of hurts us,” said one House staffer who gives tours, noting that constituents can’t come into the office and get to the Capitol through the tunnels. “It kind of just cuts us out of the process.”

But Lindsay Perdue, a staff assistant in Rep. Lynn Westmoreland’s (R-Ga.) office, said the CVC has probably made the experience better overall for constituents, even if it has cut out some of its idiosyncrasies.

“During the peak tour season, in the spring and summer, usually the lines would be really, really long so it wasn’t really convenient,” she said. But “the constituents enjoyed being a part of the tunnels that staffers and Members use every day.”

The CVC’s long-term effect on staff-led tours is yet to be seen — the building has been open for only about six weeks, during the slow winter season.

But several staffers predicted a permanent decline, with more constituents already opting to take a professional tour.

The logistics of a staff-led tour are now somewhat limiting, they said.

Meeting constituents in the CVC requires a staffer to hold up a sign or stare hopefully into the crowds. If constituents meet them at the Member’s office, they are faced with either traveling back outside to get to the CVC entrance or ignoring the “discouragement” of using the tunnels.

Technically, of course, staffers can flout the encouraged guidelines and continue as they always have, as long as their Member is on board.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said her staff gives constituents a specialized tour of the Capitol, plus a trip to the gallery. As chairwoman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch, she fought hard to keep staff-led tours intact.

Staff-led tours give her, like many Members, a way to interact with constituents, some of whom stop her in the grocery store or the mall to thank her.

“If they had gone away, then not only would constituents get a more coolly professional experience and a detached experience, they could come to Washington, go through the CVC and leave Washington without ever knowing who their Member of Congress was,” she said.

Capitol Police and CVC officials had originally planned to dump staff-led tours once the CVC opened, emphasizing that they hindered their efforts at full security. But it’s the compromise that was reached — using standardized routes and a single entrance — that appears to be the reason for the precipitous staff-led tour decline.

Trained staffers and professional guides are “more interactive with the Capitol Police on a regular basis, and play a role in the planned evacuation drills,” Capitol Police spokeswoman Sgt. Kimberly Schneider said. “Having tour routes keeps an orderly flow of visitors throughout the Capitol and the CVC.”

CVC spokesman Tom Fontana echoed this sentiment, noting that the standardized route allows many more visitors to see the Capitol per day. But he said there was room for staff-led tours — with the caveat that officials prefer they enter with constituents through the CVC doors.

“We would like them to come through the doors of the visitors center,” he said. “It’s really what it was designed for.”

Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.) said CVC officials are free to encourage their own tours, as long as Members have the final word. And so far, he said, he hasn’t heard any complaints.

“Encouraging people to do something, to have a more standard tour, I think that’s fine,” he said. “I always thought the red jackets, they have a lot more knowledge of the Capitol than my staff does.”