WASHINGTON —- Walking down a subterranean corridor of the Russell Senate Office building one Thursday afternoon, Senator Tom Cotton (R‑AR) was hard to miss. The lanky former Army Ranger ducked into his office, tucked away in the basement’s endless brick walls.
That’s just his temporary office, my tour guide junior Daniel Sunne told me. The 114th Congress is still in the process of transitioning offices, so many freshman members are in temporary spaces while official offices are cleared out.
Sunne is an intern in the office of Senator Chuck Grassley (R‑IA) this semester while at the Washington Hillsdale Internship Program, and gives constituent tours of the Capitol regularly, sometimes more than one in a day.
On this unusually warm Thursday, we took the stairs to the rotunda of the Russell building where members of congress are often interviewed on camera. Several camera crews set up, as the coffered rotunda dome glowed in the spring light.
Sunne is one of three WHIP interns on the hill this semester. Senior Bri Hearn works in the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, and sophomore Emily DePangher interns in the office of Rep. Tom McClincock (R‑CA).
“I usually give one to two tours per week depending on the season so I have lots of chances to try out different facts and gauge constituents’ responses,” DePangher said.
Spotting VIPs on Capitol Hill is far from rare, but they aren’t often receiving a tour.
Earlier in the semester, Barbara Grassley, Sen. Grassley’s wife, scheduled a tour through the Senator’s office for some of her coworkers, and tagged along for Sunne’s tour.
“She knows a lot of pieces of capitol history,” Sunne said. “And she also got us through security and into the Members’ Gallery to watch the Senate.”
We hopped on the miniature subway that connects the basements of the Senate office buildings and the Capitol and cleared security before entering the Capitol Visitor’s Center.
A tour of the nation’s Capitol is an essential element of any visit to Washington, D.C. For interns on the hill, providing the tours is a memorable experience. WHIP alumni Josiah Kollmeyer ‘14 particularly enjoyed hosting his own family for a tour when they visited Washington among the many other tours he led while interning for Rep. Tim Walberg (R‑MI).
“I was giving a family a tour, and we stopped for a fairly long conversation by the plaque listing the passengers of Flight 93 — the flight that fought back on 9/11,” said WHIP alumni Josiah Kollmeyer ’14. “I wound up explaining the meanings of courage and chivalry, as best I understand them, to a 10-year-old boy named Ransom.”
Proceeding up the escalators from the visitor’s center, we stopped in the old Supreme Court chamber where the highest court in the land met until 1860, when it was moved upstairs to the original chamber for the Senate.
“My favorite spot was the Old Senate Chamber because so many of the great compromises happened there,” remembers WHIP alumni Ian Swanson ’14, who interned in the House of Representatives during the spring of 2013. “It harkens back to a time where Senators actually listened on the floor instead of being with lobbyists in their offices.”
Perhaps the most ornate of any area on our tour of the Capitol is the Brumidi Corridors in the Senate wing. Built in the 1850s, the vaulted hallways are covered in murals depicting symbols of America’s heritage, designed by Italian painter Constantino Brumidi.
“It’s off the beaten path, so the hallways aren’t as crowded and its just as beautiful and stately as any other part of the Capitol,” Sunne explained. “It’s also used more by Congress than the other areas of the tour.”
The building is packed with paintings, murals, and friezes of American historical figures. The National Statuary hall is home to just some of the Capitol’s statue collection, which includes two historymakers from each of the 50 states.
“One of my favorite parts of the tour is the painting by John Trumbull in the Capitol’s main Rotunda,” DePangher said. “The painting depicts Washington handing over the resignation of his commission to the Maryland state legislature, representing civil rather than military rule and the selflessness necessary to start a republic.”
Our tour visited the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives before returning to Senator Grassley’s office in the Hart Senate Office Building.
Before taking a group for a tour, interns study the history of Congress and architecture of the Capitol in order to lead the tour and answer any questions.
“It took me a little over a week to learn the basics about the statues, architecture, and rooms of the Capitol,” DePangher said. “Whether it is discussing obscure Supreme Court cases or bringing in a fun factoid about a major American historical figure, I’m always adding onto the material I use for my Capitol tours.”
Swanson uses this experience regularly as part of his job as Executive Director of the Douglas County Republican Party in Omaha, Nebraska.
“My time on the hill taught me to value the quality of your interaction with someone,” Swanson said. “If you treat a constituent with respect, they will almost always listen to what you have to say. That kind of respect wasn’t always prevalent in DC.”