Most of what I know about how government works comes from re-watching “The West Wing”. So when I think about visiting members of Congress, I assume everyone talks as fast as Josh Lyman, gets as angry as Toby Ziegler, and is too important to talk to individual constituents like…well, everyone on the show. But I was wrong, in a good way. I went with a Senate-experienced friend to deliver written messages from a community action group. Here’s what I learned from my morning visit to the three Senate office buildings – Hart, Dirksen, and Russell.
Lesson 1: Getting in is easy
And there’s a great view. My first misconception was that security would be rough and challenge anyone who wasn’t a staffer or lobbyist. But it’s so easy to walk in that I didn’t even need to remove my laptop from my bag. (TSA: can you learn some lessons here?) And even if you don’t have business there, it’s worth a trip just to look around. The Hart building entrance has an impressively jagged black “Mountains and Clouds” sculpture by Alexander Calder, which fills a central marble courtyard and only moderately resembles Mount Doom. But it was the ease of entry that most impressed me. As my friend and Senate guide Lexi explained, they were designed to be “the people’s buildings”.
Lesson 2: Everyone is polite and friendly (except in elevators)
All the massive egos I assumed I would find were well hidden behind office doors and in conference rooms. During visits to eleven different offices, every assistant greeted us warmly, maintaining an impressively neutral face when we explained our mission. “We would like the Senator to consider voting against Devos for Secretary of Education because she is completely unqualified. Have a nice day!” Many were open to us connecting with staffers in charge of specific issues. And all said they would pass the correspondence on. Unfortunately, this friendliness appears to drop off in elevators, where people won’t hold doors and glare at their shoes rather than make space for you to enter. No big deal: by the time we got to Dirksen we just took the stairs instead.
Lesson 3: You can learn a lot just standing around
While waiting for Senator Deb Fischer’s assistant to finish a phone call, we heard him with a constituent urging the Senator to vote in favor of Betsy DeVos. (“WHY??” I wanted to shout into the phone. “Are you related to her? Does incompetence make you feel smarter by comparison?”) Hearing that call made our act of handing over a stack of “No DeVos!” postcards feel more meaningful and very timely.
Lesson 4: Assistants have hard, poorly rewarded jobs
They welcome positivity in their lives. An assistant for Senator Collins appeared very close to giving us a hug when we said we were dropping off thank you messages for her vote against DeVos. The same with Senator Gillibrand’s assistant, though she seemed somewhat startled by our enthusiastic “Thank you for consistently rejecting the Trump agenda!” message. (Clearly Gillibrand’s office needs to hear that more.) Yet another assistant became effusively friendly when I offered an offhand compliment on her bracelet. Politicians, and their staffers, are people too.
Lesson 5: Lessons 1-4 are not well known
The halls in all three buildings were nearly empty. But they shouldn’t be. There are 680,000 residents in DC, of which 91% supported Hillary Clinton, meaning about 600,000 people who could be knocking on Senate and Congress doors. (Yes, I’m including non-voters such as children. The halls are wide, so my three month-old and her stroller are joining me on my next visit.) We are uniquely disadvantaged in not having our own Senators, but we can easily leverage our strongest advantage: living walking distance to where every other Senator and Representative works. We should be there in force, every day, talking about the issues and pushing hard, and positively, and constructively, for the resistance. I’ll be there again very soon.
And one final lesson learned: you don’t even have to knock. All the office doors are open.