At a Year, CVC Has Critics, Fans

Posted December 4, 2009 at 6:33pm

Since the Capitol Visitor Center opened about one year ago — offering a 580,000-square-foot introduction to Congress — the number of visitors to the Capitol has doubled.

But while most agree that the $621 million Capitol expansion is impressive and beneficial, some Members and staffers also worry that the CVC is turning a once-unique visit to Congress into a canned museum experience.

“The disconnect from the actual Members who represent the people going through the CVC — the fewer number of staff-led tours that there are, the treatment of the CVC as a museum — I think homogenizes the presentation of a legislative body that is very personal,— said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who heads the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the CVC. “I just don’t know that people come away with an appreciation of the collection of individuals and the uniqueness of the legislative body.—

Indeed, the CVC is partly a museum, complete with exhibits, a cafeteria, two gift shops and a “visitor assistant— every few feet. Before the building opened, tours of the Capitol were sometimes a spontaneous experience; low-level staffers often led constituents on a personalized tour with little regulation, though Congress also employed a few professional tour guides.

Now, most visitors go on the official tour, which follows a set path through the Rotunda, Statuary Hall and the Crypt. The impromptu rides on the Capitol subway, the tailored stops and the passed-down myths are all but gone.

But also gone are the three-hour waits underneath a tent on the Capitol grounds — an inconvenience once endured by any tourist wanting a peek at the House or Senate galleries. In the past year, visitors have spent an average of six minutes in line at the CVC, and many have made online reservations for a tour beforehand. If they have to wait, they can wander through the exhibits and the shops, protected from the elements.

“The CVC has been able to do what Congress intended us to do — provide a facility that allowed constituents to be oriented before they went on a tour of this historical building,— said Terrie Rouse, the CVC’s CEO for visitor services.

Rouse rejected the notion that the structured nature of the CVC has disconnected visitors from Members. Most visitors, she said, reserve their tour passes through a Member’s office, even though they take the tour with an official tour guide. They can also look up their Member of Congress through interactive kiosks or discuss floor proceedings that are shown on televisions in the CVC.

“I think there is probably much more connection than there was before,— she said. “It actually immerses them more in the understanding of how government works than ever before, so it’s a really good education.—

Wasserman Schultz agreed that the CVC effectively educates interested visitors on the history of the legislative branch and praised it as a “beautiful space— that has “made life much easier.— But officials, she said, need to focus less on “churning— through visitors and put more effort into helping constituents understand how to interact with the legislative branch.

Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) echoed those sentiments; the CVC, he said in an e-mail, has made things “more efficient.—

“The flow of traffic for visitors through the CVC has created a more orderly and safe process than before. In the past, visitors were required to wait in line, sometimes for hours,— said Aderholt, who is the ranking member on the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch. “The CVC now provides a comfortable and more enjoyable experience, even if there is a wait.—

But Aderholt said the CVC should also “include a personal touch from their representatives in Washington.— Meeting constituents when they visit Washington, D.C., he said, “helps many members stay in touch with their districts.—

Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) had harsher criticism. Kirk — who started a petition earlier this year condemning the decline of staff-led tours — called the CVC a “large bureaucracy— that prevents constituents from getting the traditional customized tour. Staff-led tours, he argued, shouldn’t have to go through the CVC; currently, such tours are booked in a time slot online or scheduled in coordination with CVC officials.

“I think that a number of the tours have no specific references to heroes or political stories to any specific state,— Kirk said. “They have built an empire which is very out of line with the customized service that is a tradition of the Capitol.—

But the uniformity of the CVC tours contributes to one of the main reasons for building the underground structure: keeping the Capitol secure. Having predetermined tour routes, specific time slots and experienced tour guides helps ensure order during an emergency.

Capitol Police spokeswoman Sgt. Kimberly Schneider said having most visitors come through the CVC doors helps the department with its mission. But police officials are also pleased that all professional tour guides and tour-giving staffers have to go through emergency training.

“During planned evacuation drills, they play an important role and interact with the USCP regularly,— she said in an e-mail. “Tour routes maintain an orderly flow of pedestrian traffic throughout the Capitol and CVC and this helps the USCP as we perform our duties.—

In the coming months, CVC officials will be planning ways to keep that “orderly flow— during the busy season surrounding schools’ spring break. Member offices are already reserving tour slots, and some worry that the slots will be filled well before March. Slots filled up during the spring break period this year, prompting officials to add additional tours to ensure visiting constituents weren’t turned away.

But Rouse said officials are already working with Members to prepare for the busy season. They are also tweaking programs and responding to criticism, she said. She recently hired two Congressional liaisons who are making their way from office to office to answer questions, get feedback and distribute information. The goal is for them to visit every Member office by the middle of February. So far, they have visited 30 offices and haven’t gotten any negative comments, she said.

“A ramp-up of any facility is a good three years,— Rouse said. “Improving what we do is what we’re about for the next two years.—