31 Jul 2018

Capitol Hill:

Government is working. Come On, go see it and believe it.

Alexander Calder’s Mountains and Air sculpture the Hart Senate Office Building. Photo by Kate McFadden.

Most every day when we leave our homes on Capitol Hill are reminded we live in Washington, DC, the capital city of the United States. But really, we live in our ‘hometown’ and the marble monoliths of power and prestige (or, where the sausage is made by tireless civil servant worker bees) are part of the landscape. Three times in recent months I’ve had the chance to experience government at work and see behind the guarded doors, and I’ve walked away happier with the way our system of government, even if just for a few hours.

I had the pleasure of taking European friends on a behind the scenes tour hosted by a chief of staff from a Republican representative from Kentucky. Boy, would I like to hand him a tumbler of Jim Beam right about now. Eric took us through the back hallways and stairways to where the deals get made. Or, as I remember, where master artisans painted hopeful allegorical murals and carved stunning moulding and bannisters. We got to sit in the desks of the House floor and were treated to a civic lesson on how votes are called and recorded, not knowing much more than our Spanish guests about the actual process. We rubbed arms with the ‘regular’ tourists in the National Statuary Hall and rode the tram that connects the Longworth to the Capitol. We walked away energized and a little less bereft. Eric says there’s more civility and commonality and less bickering and malice than it would appear, and I’m going to believe him.

A few months later my friends Sarah and Thea said they were planning on standing on line to hear a case in front of the Supreme Court. I’d seen the picketing and celebrations after various decisions over the years, but barely remembered my last visit inside. That’s with good reason; I was 17.  We met up after school drop off and scored a pretty good parking space. Then, we rounded the corner and saw at least 150 people in line — and we all wished we had hand warmers. It was 8:45 a.m. and people didn’t start going in until 10:30. You could go in for an entire case, or you could move faster through the “just watching for 5 minutes works for me” queue. Well, that was a long cold morning, but we kept the faith and made it in by the skin of our teeth. For five minutes, I telepathed RGB healthy thoughts, marveled at the scale and design of the room, and tried to understand the banking litigation Justice Gorsuch and Justice Sotomayor were grilling corporate and government attorneys on. Guys, Ruth really does wear a lace collar; the security is really, really good; the building is beautiful, and if you can get there early (by at least 7 a.m. to hear an obscure case) it is totally worth your time.

My trip through the halls of power was completed two weeks ago by a trip to the Dirksen Senate Office Building to attend a hearing of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. My friend Carmen had cleared the vast pre-hearing hurdles on her nomination journey to serve as a Superior Court Judge and now she needed Senate confirmation, which meant going in front of the committee and fielding their questions about her background, experience, and pro-bono work. With only recent nightly news video clips of oneupmanship and insults as experience, I was thrilled to find the committee members amiable, curious and warm to Carmen and the families assembled to cheer on the various nominees. The statements by and responses from nominees to the Merit System Protection Board gave me hope that the government can hire and retain the best and brightest for civil servant positions.

So, let this be an “Invictus” of sorts. Our federal dollars are at work all over the city and some of the “people’s work” is quite interesting up close. If you have a free day during the week, consider reaching out to that staffer down the street and going behind the scenes. Check out the SCOTUS fall schedule for oral arguments and set your alarm clock. The Hill is indeed home, and there’s more than mosquitos, compost bins and roses in our “backyard.”

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