For our first day in the capital city of the USA, we thought we would do what any self respecting British tourist from the North East would do and stopped random strangers and asked where the Nissan factory was. Once we got bored of that game we headed for the Capitol to find out what all the fuss was with this election lark. (Simple answer, it has nothing to do with the Capitol, but more on that later).
American politics has always been a bit of a mystery to me. Actually British politics often staggers and confuses me, but the politics on this side of the pond seems infinitely more complicated. Actually it’s not. This is my idiot’s guide to the Congress. There are 2 houses (a bit like the House of Commons and the House of Lords) but here they are called the House of Representatives and the Senate (apparently George Washington was a big fan of Star Wars the Phantom Menace. You know that big crawl at the beginning of the film talking about the Senate and trade deals? That apparently is the American Constitution. Fact).
The Senate has 2 representatives from each State (so 102 in total) and they are elected every 6 years. The House of Representatives is elected every 2 years and there are 453 members. So The House of Representatives has all the crazy “let’s make a big splash before we get booted out” decisions while the Senate can take the long view. Well I say long term; if you compare it to the UK system, the Commons (The House of Representatives) is elected every 5 years, or until they resign after a scandal (have any more gone on since I have been away?) and the Lords serve until they drop dead. So arguably our system is slightly stabler, if duller. There is then the Judiciary which does legal stuff and then the President who does presidential stuff. They form the 3 branches of government. (I should become a High School teacher on this, I’m smashing it.)
So the Capitol is basically Parliament and has two chambers and the big domey thing is the lobby between them (again, like Parliament but with no domey thing. But the Americans did miss a trick and didn’t stick a big clock next to the building so that they could correct English tourists who visited it by telling them that the name is the name of the bell, not the clock). The major difference between The House of Parliament and the Capitol (and this is important) is that the Capitol has a really cool visitors’ centre, gift shop and a reasonably priced restaurant; all things that are missing from the UK Parliament. I’m a British citizen and I’ve never managed to get a trip around Parliament. Apparently you can request that your MP takes you around but my MP is always too busy writing press releases so that they appear in the local free sheet every week and it looks as though they are actually doing something. No the Americans have got this visitor lark sussed.
The tour, inevitably, begins with a 15 minute video which explains everything that I have just told you, but takes longer, so in my opinion was probably a bit too wordy. (As an aside, they like words in Congress. I had to Google half the words that out tour guide used. It would appear the inside of the domey thing is called “the rotunda”. Now to me “the rotunda” is that round building by the Bull Ring in Birmingham which used to have a clock and an advert for Coca Cola at the top of it. I had a good look but I couldn’t find it in the Capitol. Their rotunda was just full of paintings and statues. I think ours is better. Especially if you have lost your watch and want to know the time. Or require reminding of a possible cola beverage.)
After the overly-long film we were herded out into pens where we were given headsets and introduced to our guide, who was a lovely lady, but not that lovely that I bothered to remember her name. We were then shown around the bits of the building open to the public. Security (unsurprisingly) was tight. If you wanted to leave to go to the toilet you had to go to and ask a policeman with a gun to escort you. I really didn’t want to be escorted to the toilet at gun point by a policeman so I just held it in. Joking aside, the tour is really interesting and I learnt a lot (admittedly mainly about bladder control, but that was still a valuable lesson).
What you can also do in the Capitol is sit in the public gallery and watch either a session of the House of Representatives or the Senate. The Senate weren’t in session when we were there (well come on, it was a Friday) but the The House of Representatives was. We picked up our “International passes” as we are internationals and went to see what these politicians actually did. Before we could enter the chamber we had to relinquish our phones, cameras and hats. (Not sure what they have against hats, but the law is the law so I had to hand over my blue crushed velvet Cavalier hat with the gold braid and ostrich feather that I have bought away to be my holiday hat along with all my electronic devices). If you look at the photo of the back of our pass (international issue) you will it says that “Guests must remain seated and refrain from reading, writing, smoking, eating, drinking, applauding or picture taking” (presumably with the cameras we didn’t hand over with our hats). After many more security searches we were eventually let into the chamber. However with my phone being confiscated from me and my emergency note taking equipment being concealed in my hat (the feather is actually a quill) the following account comes solely from memory, and my memory isn’t that good, but here goes;
– the chamber is pretty much the size I thought it would be. People keep telling me that the White House looks smaller than they thought it would be. To me it looks about the size (and shape) of the White House. So far everything I have seen in Washington has been the size I imagined it would be. Perhaps I just have a good sense of proportion, but nothing has as yet surprised me, size wise.
– There were hardly any people in, and the ones that weren’t talking were mainly looking at their phones. (I think one of them was up to level 1600 on Candy Crush.)
– The man talking looked like the newsreader from the Simpsons and the opposing man didn’t. No one else was paying attention to what was being said except for Mr Speaker and the stenographer (who I believe was probably reading and writing, so how she got away with it I don’t know).
– Mr Speaker has the most comfortable chair, but seemed content to stand. It was approaching lunch time so perhaps he thought by standing it might speed up the chappy who was talking. It was fish and chip day in the restaurant as well.
– Mr Speaker had a load of people around him who were reading, writing and one of them even made a phone call (but she may just have been putting in her lunch order).
– Something happened that seemed to be the cue for us all to leave, so we left. Actually I think the cue was hunger. I think I could smell the fish and chips.
So there we have it. Democracy in action. All this politics made me quite hungry, so we headed to the restaurant, after I had picked up my hat.