Visiting the United States Capitol on a tour

The second week of my political journalism course had us covering the US Congress and we had the privilege of a tour of the US Capitol. First up was a general tour of the Capitol that is also open to the public. The more exciting part of our day was a guided tour by the staff of Congressman Hinchey, who is Ithaca’s representative in the House. We made our way to the congressman’s office to meet two of his staff members and collect a sticker saying “US Capitol Staff-Led Tour” with the congressman’s signature on it. We didn’t get to meet him though because he was not in Washington at the time.

United States Capitol Rotunda

It was really cool to see the rotunda dome of the US Capitol. From the exterior of the Capitol building, the dome is the defining structure that makes the Capitol so recognizable and it was awe-inspiring to see upclose the little details and artwork that makes the interior so magnificent. Bearing in mind that during our tour, we also ran into congressmen – them nonchalantly walking past us as they went about their normal activities. What a grand workplace to be at everyday.

US Capitol rotunda | Washington, D.C.

Taking in the rotunda is quite a breath-taking experience. It’s the legislative heart of the country and there is a sense of importance in the air. The design and architecture of the rotunda is majestic, and the artwork, intricate. 19 scenes are painted on the circular frieze below the windows of the dome, depicting the Spanish conquest, the arrival of the Pilgrims, the Declaration of Independence and the discovery of gold in California, and other key moments in America’s history.

US Capitol rotunda | Washington, D.C.

Also in the rotunda are eight historical paintings. Four of them are painted by John Trumbull about the American Revolution and the other four about the exploration and colonization of America. Finally, there are statues of George Washington, Ronald Reagan and Martin Luther King, Jr., amongst others, placed around the rotunda.

Declaration of Independence at the US Capitol

US Capitol rotunda | Washington, D.C.

National Statuary Hall

The picture below is of the National Statuary Hall, a semi-circular chamber in the Capitol with statues of prominent Americans. The acoustics of the chamber are such that if you stand at a particular spot, you can hear the echoes coming from another spot across the room, hence being able to eavesdrop on conversations.

National Statuary Hall | US Capitol | Washington, D.C.

Our guides then brought us to the press room, where congressmen make their media reports from. It was cool and we snapped pictures there, feeling important, if only for a few seconds. We also got to see the media room where journalists work on their reports. There was a row of telephone booths where they would call their editors from to file their reports. The booths were in such close proximity to each other that journalists could actually eavesdrop on each other and sort of steal a rival’s stories. We were told however, that blackberrys and mobile phones now meant that journalists didn’t rely on these telephone booths anymore since they could do so anytime and anywhere they wanted. I think the telephones also connect to the congressional offices so that journalists can call to conduct interviews, research or background checks.

US Congress press room

Ending off the tour, we ventured into the underground floors of the US Capitol where a subway system and walking tunnels connect the Capitol to the congressional office buildings. Only groups accompanied by congressional staff may take the subway but when the House and Senate are in session, the subway is only available to staff.

US Capitol underground subway

So after the tour of the US Capitol, the topic for this week’s assignment was to be anything related to Congress or the legislative branch of government. Phone calls made to congressional offices went unanswered or were redirected. I had to make so many phone calls to congressional aides who were not willing to talk or comment; they either directed me to other offices or they claimed that the communications director was not around so they were not in a position to comment. I had to assure them that this was an academic assignment before they agreed (very reluctantly) to speak. From my time in Washington, D.C., it seems information is rarely forthcoming and journalists are shunned like the plague.

She Deserves Liberty

By JEREMY HOU; 14 July 2007

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The copper-clad statue sits silently atop an island at the entrance to New York Harbor, and keeps a watchful eye over the New Jersey coastline and Manhattan cityscape. A gift from the French to celebrate the centennial independence of the United States from the British, it welcomes all visitors, immigrants and Americans who have passed through the harbor since 1886. It is a symbol of freedom, of hope. It is the Statue of Liberty.

Following the September 11th terror attacks on the World Trade Center, the National Park Service immediately closed Liberty Island, denying tourists access to the grand statue. The National Park Service announced early 2004 that the Statue of Liberty would only reopen after $5 million was raised to add safety enhancements to the Statue. President George W. Bush did not include the Statue of Liberty in his 2004 federal budget, despite setting aside $8 million for the upgrading of a cafeteria and a car park at Crater Lake National Park, Oregon.

“The Statue of Liberty is the defining symbol of New York City and the United States,” said Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Queens & Brooklyn) on February 16. “We all took a terrible blow from 9/11, but now it’s time for Lady Liberty to get up off the mat, just like the rest of the City has.  Instead, the Bush budget slaps her in the face.”

In April, Rep. Weiner called on the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to launch an investigation into the fund-raising activities of a nonprofit organization, the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation.

“There are no records of any investigation on the Foundation. The only reports of the Statue of Liberty is from a study done way back in 1986,” said Elizabeth Johnston, GAO’s Legislative Advisor for Congressional Relations. “What’s even stranger is that Rep. Weiner’s name does not appear in my database.”

However, the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation insists that an investigation by GAO was carried out in 2004, though there was “nothing found to be out of the ordinary”. The Foundation raised money to assist the National Park Service to enhance Liberty Island as a whole, and not just the Statue. The Statue of Liberty was reopened on August 5, 2006, but visitors can only ascend as high as the Statue’s feet, while going up to the Statue’s crown remains a no-go.

“There are health and safety concerns that we have to deal with regarding the interior of the Statue,” said Darren Boch, Spokesman, National Park Service (New York Harbor). “Even before 9/11 occurred, we were thinking of closing access to the crown.”

The interior of the Statue does not conform to New York City’s building code. According to Boch, when the Statue was first designed, it allowed only for maintenance workers to enter the interior, and not for “thousands of visitors to climb up the narrow staircase.”

Rep. Weiner announced Congressional hearings into the reopening of the Statue on July 4. According to an aide from Rep. Weiner’s Congressional office, the National Park Service has not released a statement to them.

“Hearings will take place in the summer,” said the Congressional aide. “The Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands will review management of the Statue and the decision by the National Park Service to keep the crown closed.”

Visitors might be able to see the Manhattan cityscape once again from the crown of the Statue, and not just from her toes. As Rep. Weiner said in a press release, “It’s time to reopen the Statue of Liberty fully. To the crown.”

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