Congress Begins Mass Exodus in Snow

Posted February 5, 2010 at 12:58pm

As snow began falling on Capitol Hill on Friday afternoon — and weather forecasts became increasingly grim — Members closed offices and staffers began a mass exodus home.

Several staffers said many offices were following the lead of the Office of Personnel Management, which directed federal agencies to dismiss employees four hours early. But other Members left it up to staffers to decide when to leave, and some told staffers not to come in at all.

Unlike the rest of the federal government, neither the House nor the Senate has a clear-cut dismissal policy for inclement weather. Each Member office is like a separate business, deciding individually whether it’s safe for staffers to travel to and from work.

On Friday, that left some unlucky staffers tied to their desks as they watched the hallways flood with colleagues going home. By 1 p.m., forecasters were predicting more than two feet of snow in some areas by Saturday night.

“I do think that it would serve Congressional staff well if there were a clear and consistent policy on snow closures,” said one House staffer, whose office was closing at 2 p.m. “It really hurts morale when you see your colleagues ducking out at noon or not having to come in at all.”

Those who stayed would have done well to bring snacks: Cafeterias closed early to allow employees time to get home. In the House, all food services closed at noon, while the Senate closed everything at 1 p.m., except for its American Grill, which will stay open until 3 p.m.

“House operations were reduced to essential staff only at noon, which included the cafeterias,” Jeff Ventura, the spokesman for Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard, said in an e-mail. “This was done to ensure that House employees can return home safely before this snow storm makes travel unsafe.”

Officials over at the Capitol Visitor Center, meanwhile, scaled back the services for visitors to the Capitol. Only one of two gift shops remained open Friday afternoon, and spokeswoman Sharon Gang said the building would be closed completely Saturday.

Members also had a difficult time getting out of town and back to their districts before the weather made traveling impossible. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) closed her office at 1 p.m. but stayed in town to participate in the Democratic National Committee Convention. And unlike staffers, she faced a 1,000-mile trip home.

“Her afternoon and evening flights have all been cancelled, so she’s on a train to Florida leaving later today,” spokesman Jonathan Beeton said in an e-mail. “Some of the staff will be working with her here on The Hill until she leaves.”