They’re doing a halfway docent job

When staffers double as tour guides, Capitol lore can get pretty interesting

A tourist takes a photo of John Trumbull's “Declaration of Independence” painting in the Capitol Rotunda. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
A tourist takes a photo of John Trumbull's “Declaration of Independence” painting in the Capitol Rotunda. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 25, 2019 at 5:01am

You’ve just arrived in the Capitol, and suddenly you’re an expert on bootlegging, tiny doors, and why no one is buried in the Crypt.

Almost as soon as new Hill staffers walk through the door, they’re asked to lead tours for constituents — and to some, that can come as a surprise.
“We know they might not have known that they were going to be giving tours until they got here,” said Lee Ann Brackett, a congressional liaison at the Capitol Visitor Center.

Some of the questions are easy. No, that Magna Carta isn’t real. Yes, Constantino Brumidi was really into tiny woodland creatures.

But the tougher ones may require some help. All those Doric and Ionic columns don’t explain themselves, which is why the CVC offers a training program to get novice staffers up to speed.

While constituent tour duties usually land with interns and staff assistants, it’s not just thankless grunt work. For many visitors to Washington, it’s a highlight of their trip to see the halls of power through the eyes of an enthusiastic guide with roots in their state.

And some tours are spicier than others. “We tried to not be totally ignorant of facts, but it was more about trying to give them an enjoyable experience,” said former Senate aide Steve Salfeety, who now leads the research division of Roll Call’s sister publication.

That means stories handed down from staffer to staffer, whether it’s a state-specific factoid or a legend that’s far from verified but “part of the lore of the Capitol.”

One raunchy rumor that’s been told on tours for years is that the chandelier outside the Old Senate Chamber once hung in a whorehouse in D.C., and when the establishment was torn down, so many members had been patrons that they wanted to save the chandelier.

“People love that story,” said Salfeety.

Another far-fetched tale, according to a former House staff assistant: Jackie and John F. Kennedy spotted the light fixture while vacationing in France and brought it back to the Hill.

The apocrypha doesn’t end there. After Roll Call released a video in April explaining that the “tiny doors” along the baseboards in the Capitol are part of a historic fire suppression system, current and former staffers reached out to share the little white lies they’d told.

The doors aren’t coal chutes or for stoking fires in rooms beyond, as plenty of tourists have heard over the years.

No elves, no coal: myth-busting the Capitol’s ‘little doors’

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Creativity isn’t the only skill honed on the tour-giving beat. Between history buff dads, bored children, big-shot donors and people asking questions like it’s a press conference, it’s essentially one big dress rehearsal for staffers hoping to embark on a long career in politics.

Keeping cool is a plus. One former staffer endured a nightmare scenario in which a kid on a tour managed to get a laser pointer into the Senate chamber, despite the metal detectors, and was flashing it around.

“He was hauled out so fast” by Capitol Police, said the former staffer, who was left to handle the rest of the tour, including the adults in charge of the laser-pointing kid.

Things can get awkward when constituents pull out their wallets. Plenty of constituents try to tip after tours, according to a former Senate staffer who left Capitol Hill this year. Some will even mail gifts to a member’s office later. But ethics rules prohibit staff from accepting gifts of any monetary value, meaning that any well-intended fruit baskets must be returned.
That stings when you’re an unpaid intern or an entry-level staffer pulling in a meager $30,000 a year.

And then there are the tourists who try to talk politics as they wend their way through the Rotunda. Biting your tongue and soldiering on with the tour is the best option, one former Democratic Senate aide said, even if the remarks are loudly derogatory toward your boss.

The trainings from the Capitol Visitor Center are meant to teach staffers how to give top-flight tours, but also how to handle tricky situations like those.

Brackett revamped the training program nine years ago and has been running it ever since. Tour coordinators in each House and Senate office can keep an eye out for emails from her office announcing regular sessions.
Last year, 4,500 people passed through the program, which includes a tour within a tour led by some of the CVC’s best guides. Trainees also get a walkthrough of a typical route and a spiral-bound cheat sheet to keep on hand.

The second part of the training is aimed at ensuring safety on tours and making them available to everyone. The Office of Congressional Accessibility Services teaches staff how to create positive experiences for constituents with disabilities and how to accommodate visitors who are blind, deaf or in a wheelchair.

“Whatever it may be, that person can have the best experience possible during their tour,” Brackett said.

The House and Senate sergeants at arms also give staffers a safety and security talk, focused on where to go should something happen while they are giving a tour in the Capitol.

While staffer-led tours are a tailored treat for visitors, it’s hard to beat one given by a passionate member of Congress.

Rep. Louie Gohmert is notorious for giving enthusiastic late-night tours to Texans visiting town. Member-led tours, unlike those given by office staffers or visitor center guides, can go on the House floor. Gohmert has even enlisted after-hours help from Capitol employees to light up the voting board in the House chamber.