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A Visit To Capitol Hill
What it's like to be a nobody while the Senate works around you
As some of you know, I’m getting ready to do a fellowship on Capitol Hill; as part of that fellowship, I’m taking an MA-level course on Congress and Foreign Policy. I didn’t plan to do another email this week but I figured I could re-use this content for you all. One of our assignments was to visit the Hill and take in a hearing, reporting on it more as an anthropologist than as a journalist. Here’s what I learned as a nobody on Capitol Hill, inspired by the classic Tribes on the Hill.
If you’re interested in more substantive stuff, well, here’s a link to my analysis of what the Trump/Zelensky call tells us about US democracy and the liberal world order in the Washington Post.
I visited the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on September 17, 2019, to observe its hearing on “Minerals and Clean Energy Technologies” in room 366 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. Walking to the Dirksen building, I observed that its stately architecture makes it appear important while its surrounding green space makes it appear welcoming. That appearance is a little misleading, as access to the building by public transit is annoying. I arrived at Union Station, a third of a mile’s walk (including crossing Columbus Circle) away. Senators park next to the building. Capitol Police units and security measures were visible on the way to the building.
Entering Dirksen was simultaneously underwhelming and distinctive. Underwhelming, because compared to the neoclassical façade of the building, the actual process involved standing in line outside before being walked through a 1970s-style metal detector and having my small bag scanned quickly in a modest lobby—no feeling of having arrived in the corridors of power. Distinctive, because as a member of the public I had to enter through a particularly underwhelming lobby while staff and senators entered through a separate door. Other students had said their hearings filled up quickly, so I arrived 45 minutes early. (Mine did not.)
I stood waiting in the hallway outside the hearing room with a journalist and three members of the entourage for one of the hearing witnesses. The seal of the United States and of the Senate were repeated constantly in the hallways, even on the garbage and recycling bins. The conspicuous width of the hallways themselves served both an ornamental and a functional purpose: no one would ever have to give way to anyone else. Nor were there any chairs or benches outside the room. The journalist remarked that he had become a single-issue voter on providing furniture outside of hearing rooms. Why was there no furniture? I arrived at two answers. First, there was no incentive to provide it. Anyone waiting in the hall is by definition not part of the working Senate and providing for their comfort would not deliver any benefits to any senator – and could even be seen as excessive (“Senate Votes Chairs for Lobbyists”). The second, more plausible reason, is that furniture could pose a security and a political problem, since it would invite people to stay. There are many reasons why protesters or others would want to stick around an ostentatiously public building. Making the hallways uncomfortable and unwelcoming deters both vagrancy and protests. There was one piece of furniture: a stanchion ready to exclude those unnecessary for the public’s business.
At about 9:10, twenty minutes before the start time, a committee staffer came into the hallway from the hearing room and let in the witnesses and entourage. We were allowed in at about 9:20. The hearing room presented a midcentury interpretation of classical Greek and Roman architectural elements jumbled together. The coffered ceilings hosted friezes of figures from the Zodiac “supported” by decorative bas relief columns. The columns themselves sported (apparently nonfunctional) bronze lamps with wings and fasces supporting the bulbs. Built at the dawn of the television era, the chamber serves the needs of the media through relatively unobtrusive placements for cameras (below the chair, facing the witness table) and with relatively obtrusive LED lighting to provide even and bright lighting for the cameras. Besides the lights and the microphones, however, little of the technology in the room was visible; technology is not part of the neoclassical vernacular, and even though the room is a television set it must pretend not to be.
The room is also a stage for live theater. The senators sat on a raised dais on leather seats with full backs and armrests behind a long curving desk. Staffers had benches immediately behind the senators’ seats. Senators and staff entered and left through a door behind the chair’s seat, in the middle of the dais. Seating for the public and press was less impressive: 45 narrow-backed leather chairs with an aisle for the “general” public and eight or ten chairs for the credentialed press around two tables pushed off to the side of the room. The witnesses received full-backed chairs (no armrests) at a table facing the senators. Each senator and witness was furnished a plastic bottle of Alaskan glacier water; the chair, Lisa Murkowski, is a Republican from Alaska.
Almost everyone in the room was White, save for one senator (Senator Cortez-Masto), three or four staffers and clerks, and a few of the four dozen audience members. Most of the visitors were young (under 40) and almost all were wearing officewear: suits for men and a similar level for women. Most of the men’s suits were unimpressive and uninteresting, almost exclusively dark blue or gray. One witness wore a pink and blue tie; in context, that touch of sartorial attitude looked positively daring. The contrast with other high-status workplaces – a modern media firm, major bank, or tech company – was stark. The costumes were intended to convey respect for rank and blending in, rather than standing out. The Capitol Police pointedly, but quietly, spoke to an elderly gentleman wearing a blue pro-environmental T-shirt (the only non-business or business-casual dress in the room).
The hearing itself was interesting, both anthropologically and substantively. The focus was not on the witnesses’ prepared statements about various ways that minerals important for renewable energy production and storage can be sourced but on the ability of the senators to use the witnesses as foils to raise or debate points. The questioning followed a precise order of alternating seniority by party. Only Senator Murkowski stayed for the entire hearing; the rest came and went during the two hours as they had more pressing business elsewhere. The legislators seemed deeply interested while they were there and well briefed on their subject matter, but in the main they seemed more interested in probing the witnesses for support for their pre-existing beliefs rather than in having their minds changed (although on a few occasions witnesses did say something genuinely novel).
The atmosphere was conspicuously nonpartisan, despite the alternating-parties rule for questioning. The only testy exchange came from the liberal Democratic senator Debbie Stabenow and a conservative fellow from the Manhattan Institute; Stabenow pointed out that the fellow was using different standards to evaluate green and fossil fuel production. Senator Martha McSally of Arizona, a Republican, made a joke about a “Green Bad Deal” but also pointedly talked up Arizona’s potential role in supplying minerals needed for renewable energy storage and production. (A US Air Force veteran, she sported the most interesting senatorial clothing accessory—a jet-plane pendant.) The hearing concluded with Senator Murkowski delivering a summation of the hearing to the witnesses and audience, who had remained throughout; no other senators remained by then.