Bill Lifts Restrictions on Staff-Led Tours

Posted June 12, 2009 at 6:08pm

The legislative branch appropriations bill isn’t the most exciting legislation that Congress handles, dealing almost exclusively with the spending minutiae that keep the Hill running.

But on Friday, Members of the House Appropriations Committee gave a rare round of applause to a provision that would prohibit the Architect of the Capitol from using funds to restrict staff-led tours.

“It means the CVC can’t tell Members or staff that they can’t bring constituents through the Capitol,— said Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who helped craft the provision. “It’s moving the CVC staff out of the way and putting Members and staff back in charge.—

Since the Capitol Visitor Center opened in December, dozens of Members have complained that new tour schedules and training courses have curtailed their favorite constituent service.

Where once staffers could spontaneously take visitors on a personalized tour, they now must sign up for pre-allotted tour times and stick to a designated route — and only after taking a daylong training course.

At Friday’s hearing, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) offered an amendment, in conjunction with Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), aimed at removing those barriers after months of talks with AOC officials.

“They are working with us but don’t have it quite right yet, so we thought we had to add additional encouragement,— said Wasserman Schultz, who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch. “We think it would be a travesty for our constituents to come through the entire Capitol complex and leave never having had contact with their Member.—

The amendment easily passed, along with the legislative branch appropriations bill, which provides about $3.7 million for Congressional offices and agencies.

The amendment also adds report language directing the AOC to “not restrict where staff-led tours may go in the United States Capitol— and “promptly resolve any issues that may develop with staff-led tours.—

“The Committee has serious concerns about reports of Capitol Visitor Center staff directing staff-led tours not to proceed to particular areas of the Capitol,— the amendment reads. “That is a responsibility of the Capitol Police, not the Capitol Visitor Center staff.—

Wasserman Schultz has long fought to keep staff-led tours alive, addressing the issue in a handful of oversight hearings during the CVC’s construction.

Police and CVC officials originally proposed that staff-led tours be eliminated to streamline tours. In the end, a compromise was made: Staffers could give tours, but first they needed to get trained in emergency procedures.

But the issue came up anew in March, when Kirk and Rep. Dave Loebsack (D-Iowa) circulated a “Dear Colleague— letter claiming that the CVC’s touring procedures were hurting Members’ relationships with their constituents. Strict regulations, they wrote, dictated who could give tours and where they were allowed to go.

Within a few weeks, they had the support of more than 50 Members.

Since then, CVC officials have made some changes, such as creating time slots specifically for staff-led tours and increasing the number of training sessions to one or more a week. Previously, the courses were offered only a handful of times each month.

But Kirk has said that those changes didn’t completely solve the problem. The CVC, he said, “reflects a museum administrative view as opposed to what this institution is, which is a working legislative building.—