Each spring, approximately 600 human resources professionals gather in Washington, DC to attend the SHRM Employment Law and Legislative Conference. This annual event provides a unique opportunity to hear directly from policy makers, media professionals, award winning authors, and other speakers dedicated to helping to administer, shape, or communicate the legislation, regulations, and court decisions that help shape our U.S. workplaces. In addition to the 30+ sessions offered over the three-day conference, there is also a unique opportunity for attendees to have their individual and collective voices heard on Capitol Hill during a SHRM Advocacy Day Hill Visit.
While these scheduled visits with members of the Senate and House of Representatives are well-organized and well-timed with the elected officials and their staff, there can be some downtime before and between these scheduled meetings. Attendees can certainly take this time to check in on their work emails, but keep in mind that this downtime is in one of the most historic buildings in our nation’s history, so I suggest using this time instead to experience some aspects of the U.S. Capitol Building that are often overlooked.
Here are my Top Five, Often Overlooked Ways to Spend Free-time at the U.S. Capitol:
Dine at a Senate or House Cafeteria
Many people are not aware that there are about ten cafeteria and carryout dining facilities located throughout the House and Senate office buildings. These facilities are used primarily by legislators and staff working in the various buildings, but they are also open to the general public.
Dining options in the Senate Office Buildings and the House of Representatives Office Buildings include a wide-range of offerings from Dunkin Donuts/Baskin Robbins, Subway, full-service cafeterias, and vending services. Visitors are provided with many convenient ways to grab a quick bite while not having to leave the Capitol (and subjecting themselves to another go around through security).
Be aware that these dining facilities can become extremely busy, particularly between 11am-1pm, so visitors should plan accordingly. Also, the key to these dining options is convenience and the opportunity to possibly see recognizable members of Congress in a behind-the-scenes setting, not five-star culinary greatness. However, visitors may still find some hidden gems, including the famed U.S. Senate Bean Soup that has been served daily in Senate restaurants for over 100 years.
Shop at a Senate or House Gift Shop
If there one thing that there is no shortage of in Washington, DC it is souvenirs. The Capitol Visitor Center Gift Shops feature a large selection of U.S. Capitol themed merchandise and is often mistakenly thought of as the only shopping option for Capitol visitors. Most visitors to the Capitol are not aware that there are Senate and House Gift Shops located in the Dirksen Senate Office Building (SDB-01) and Longworth House Office Building (B-217), respectively.
The Senate and House Gift Shops have some of the best political merchandise at low prices for political enthusiasts on both side of the aisle. Each shop has one-of-a-kind items including those with United States Senate or United States House of Representatives logos that cannot be found anywhere else in the city. Anyone looking to bring home a memorable item from their visit to the U.S. Capitol should find time to stop in to one or both gift shops.
Tour Exhibition Hall at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center
The U.S. Capitol Visitor Center is the starting point for all Capitol Tours. Located underground under the east side of the Capitol Building, this vast center can often be a crowded, chaotic, and intimidating area filled with tour groups, school groups, and tourists. However, just past the roped off queues where visitors wait to receive their tour passes, there is a large, museum-like area called Exhibition Hall.
If the U.S. Capitol had a museum dedicated to the history, construction, and legacy of this building, this would be it. Here visitors will see detailed models of the Capitol building as it evolved over the years since President George Washington first laid the original cornerstone of the building on September 18, 1793. There are numerous historical artifacts, documents, interactive displays, and two theaters which provide visitors with an in-depth look into Congress and the historic building they work in.
Visit the Senate and House Galleries
To truly view either the United States Senate or the United States House of Representatives in action, a visit to the Senate or House Galleries must not be overlooked. Each chamber provides the public with the opportunity to view the chambers from either the Senate or House Galleries which overlook the floor of each chamber. A visit to the House Gallery will allow visitors to see the chamber where the President of the United States addresses Congress and the nation in his/her annual State of the Union address. (FYI…it looks much bigger on TV!)
If a legislative body is in session, visitors will have a birds-eye view of the activities that take place on the floor below them, similar to the view seen while watching proceedings on C-SPAN, albeit without the classical music.
Anyone interested in visiting either the Senate or House Galleries must obtain a free Gallery Pass from their member of the U.S. Senate or U.S. House before proceeding to the upper level of the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center to access either gallery. (NOTE: Gallery visits require additional security screening as no personal items, including electronics, are allowed in either gallery.)
View the Congressional Art Competition Display
Many visitors to the U.S. Capitol are not aware that there are series of underground tunnels that connect the Senate and House office buildings to the U.S. Capitol Building. In the tunnel connecting the Cannon House Office Building to the U.S. Capitol, visitors will see student artwork from across the country adorning one of the concrete tunnel walls.
Since 1982, high school students from across the nation submit their visual art entries to their respective members of the U.S. House of Representatives each year for the Congressional Art Competition. Entries are judged by art experts within each district and one winner is selected from each congressional district. The winning art entries are then displayed, by state, for one year in the Cannon Tunnel.
Visitors interested in viewing the Congressional Art Competition Display should check with their U.S. House of Representatives office for directions to the Cannon Tunnel and to verify if an escort or any building access credentials are required.
BONUS: Ride the Senate or House Subway System
Besides underground pedestrian tunnels that link the Senate and House office buildings to the U.S. Capitol, the Capitol Subway System is a series of three subway lines that link the buildings with small trains that are referred to as “people movers.” The first subway was built in 1909 to connect the Russell Senate Office Building to the U.S. Capitol with additional lines added for both the Senate and House in the 1960’s.
The subway system was developed to provide members and staff with a quick method to reach the Capitol, particularly when there were floor votes. Today, they are still used and is also open to the public when escorted by a member or staff member with proper identification. The trains are restricted to members only during floor votes.
There may not be many opportunities for the general public to ride these subways, but if this is offered by the staff member, I highly recommend this genuinely behind-the-scenes U.S. Capitol experience.
Wisconsin SHRM Members at 2017 SHRM Employment Law & Legislative Conference
SHRM Advocacy Hill Visit