The Big Game

PrintPrintEmailEmail

It’s easier to breach the Senate, but you must have a pass, obtained by either phoning ahead or dropping by your senator’s Washington office. It is a bleacher ticket for the political junkie. To reach the Senate visitors’ gallery, you present the handsome pass and take the elevator to the third floor. After more security checks you arrive at the hushed, rectangular room. When I was there, Nancy Kassebaum (Republican, Kansas) and John McCain (Republican, Arizona) were arguing for a federal standard for aircraft liability. John Kerry (Democrat, Massachusetts) presided over the empty room in the President’s chair. Howell Heflin (Democrat, Alabama) sat in silent opposition for a few minutes, wandered out briefly as figures about Cessna’s decline and encroaching foreign competition were read into the record. The argument was deadening, but as they filed out, my fellow tourists looked satisfied by the sheer amount of detail that real work was being done.

Wandering the halls of Congress, you pass the committee rooms and statues representing the notable citizens of every state in the Union. I found most people in the halls to be jocular and friendly, if understandably pressed to reach their next committee hearing. Here and there inspirational quotes appear on the walls. “Enlighten the people generally,” Jefferson says above the saloon-style doors of the second-floor House men’s room, “And Tyranny and Oppressions of Body and Mind Will Vanish Like Evil spirits at The Dawn of Day.”

Everywhere on the first floor and out front there are color-coded knots of children touring the Congress in springtime, often with vivid, matching T-shirts; expedition leaders sometimes open umbrellas to summon their charges. The Rotunda and the intimate red-and-gold splendor of the Old Senate Chamber, where Webster articulated the idea of Union in his debate with Hayne, are often suffused with a vague perfume of one hundred girls chewing bubble gum during the short lectures.

For political theater we had it all. In an hour House members argued abortion, redistricting, the rights of the rural poor, and those of aliens.

The House visitors’ gallery, where passes are also required, offered considerably better action on this day than the Senate’s. For political theater we had it all. In an hour House members argued abortion, redistricting, the rights of the rural poor, and those of aliens. These debates were all provoked by proposed restrictions on the Legal Services Corporation, up for renewal in the Congress. I saw speaking notes theatrically cast aside in the name of “talking to each other,” and I heard Congressman Jack Brooks of Texas recount how he “went to bed one night with a North-South district” and woke up the next morning with “one that was East-West.”

You go to the game to see all the maneuvering that television misses just following the ball up and down the court. It is one thing to hear the recognized speaker of the moment on C-Span, and another to wonder why Charlie Rangel is telling a joke on the Republican side of the room, or why Barney Frank never sits down but glides around giving cues to his teammates, or why my representative, Charles Schumer of Brooklyn, would be caught even chatting with Newt Gingrich, who lives in another political universe. It’s politics, the big important game. Television can’t take in all the gritty work of making law, and neither can you, really. But a day spent in the galleries feels reassuring, all the same. “Ooh, there’s Pat,” whispered the daughter of the Colorado couple beside me as Pat Schroeder entered the room beaming. “Doesn’t she look nice?” answered the mother. After noting Representative Schroeder’s vote on the redistricting amendment, the family called it a day.

—Nathan Ward TO PLAN A TRIP