Capitol Hill Remains Mostly a Ghost Town

Posted February 8, 2010 at 5:32pm

On Monday morning as the city remained almost immobilized by the weekend snowstorm, Shelley Welcher persuaded her husband to hop into their Toyota Highlander and drive her to Capitol Hill from their home in Clinton, Md.

Along with more than 200 of her co-workers, Welcher began her shift early at the Government Printing Office to ensure the agency was able to print more than 7,500 copies of the 2010 Economic Report of the President. Some copies are due to the White House by Wednesday, while the rest will be distributed Thursday.

“We have a lot of people who tried to get in and couldn’t make it because of the icy conditions, and a lot of neighborhoods hadn’t been plowed yet,” she said. But others were downright stubborn: One employee, she said, was able to drive to work only after his neighbor used a Bobcat to clear his driveway.

But the GPO seemed alone Monday in its decision to keep its doors open. Capitol Hill was essentially a ghost town: The hallways of Congressional buildings were almost empty, and the rest of the federal government was closed.

Though each Member decides his own policy for inclement weather, most seemed to follow the lead of the executive branch and closed their offices. On Monday afternoon, most doors in the Rayburn House Office Building were locked or contained only one or two determined staffers. Rep. Joe Baca’s (D-Calif.) office, however, seemed to be one of the few kept open.

Spokesman John Lowrey described the office’s policy: “If you want to come in and can, great. But don’t kill yourself getting here.”

“Obviously, in these conditions we want to be flexible,” he said.

Services in the House and Senate were also kept to a minimum. House Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard closed all cafeterias except the one in Longworth, where little more than coffee and sandwiches were available. Senate officials similarly closed the Dirksen cafeteria, and the Architect of the Capitol operated only “essential services.”

Consequently, the Hill became a quiet, snowy playground, with local children capitalizing on the ideal sledding conditions of the Capitol lawn.

“I sled where there were no footprints!” said Carter Tenhula, a 3-year-old who used his plastic sled on the Capitol’s West Front for about an hour Monday morning. A moment later he added, “I’m hungry.”

Nearby, Capitol Police officers turned a blind eye to the families playing in the snow, despite the fact that they were technically breaking the department’s rules. Many officers had been on duty since Friday, staying in nearby hotels to ensure the Capitol was secured all weekend.

Spokeswoman Sgt. Kimberly Schneider in an e-mail said the department provides “full, 24 hr. coverage of the U.S. Capitol Grounds during inclement weather.” But arrests over the weekend totaled just two: one for an unlicensed taxi driver and another for a driver operating after suspension.

“We’ve been working closely w/ AOC to note trouble areas on the grounds,” Schneider said.

At the Government Printing Office, about 16 or 17 officers also had to stay throughout the weekend — but they weren’t given hotel rooms. Instead, they slept in the agency’s North Capitol building, sharing three cots and sleeping in four-hour shifts. Officer Jeff Campbell ended up sleeping on a chair Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. His shift was scheduled to end at 11 p.m. Monday and begin again at 7 a.m. today.

Campbell said he has handled worse weather before: He worked one winter in Alaska for the Department of Veterans Affairs. But a snowed-in Capitol Hill was worse in at least one respect: food availability. Officers, he said, ended up eating military meals ready to eat all weekend.

“It has to get pretty bad for Union Station to close down,” he said with a laugh. “And it closed down.”