What is a Congressional tour in Washington, D.C.?
March 7, 2012 7:56 PM   Subscribe

Going to Washington, D.C. - what's the deal with Congressional tours?

My Congressperson's webpage has some D.C. sites listed where there are special Congressional tours available by contacting him for tickets ahead of time. What's special about these tours? How are they different from the regular tours? If it makes a difference, we're two grownups and two tweens going sometime this summer.
posted by Addlepated to Travel & Transportation around Washington, DC (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The Congressperson's office can get you passes to the House and Senate galleries. Ordinary tours do not visit them.
posted by Gridlock Joe at 8:09 PM on March 7, 2012

What Gridlock Joe said: the gallery passes are the big difference, though that might be moot if you're going during the summer recess. You may also get to see a little bit more of the 'working' bits of Congress, as you'll be led by a staffer rather than a full-time guide, and the congressperson's office can usually sort out tours of other bits of political DC (White House, Supreme Court, etc.) at the same time.
posted by holgate at 8:15 PM on March 7, 2012

FWIW we got gallery tickets just by going to the desk and asking for them - no Congresscritter's office involved.
posted by thirteenkiller at 8:23 PM on March 7, 2012

White House tours are exclusively available via your congresscritter; I'm not aware of any others being special, though they may have some slots reserved for their own constituents. If you want to do it apply immediately; the delay is not trivial.
posted by phearlez at 8:36 PM on March 7, 2012

I just did one of these tours with my parents a few weeks ago (they made all the arrangements with their Congressman); our guide was an intern in his office. We did get gallery passes, and saw the House vote on some bill.

I'd say what appeared to be the biggest differences from the regular tour groups were 1) we didn't really have to wait in any lines (we saw some large groups of schoolchildren and other touristy looking groups) to get in anywhere and 2) our group was just my parents, me and the tour guide (as opposed to the much larger groups we saw in the regular lines). It was nice getting to talk more with the guide and not having to deal with a bunch of strangers. Plus, since my dad has some mobility issues, she was able to more easily accommodate him. Also, before we left for the tour, we had a chance to talk with the Congressman, and took a picture with him (if that's something you might be interested in).

I'd say the Congressional tour was definitely worth it, especially if your family members are interested in history and/or politics.
posted by mesha steele at 5:20 AM on March 8, 2012

White House tours are only available through your Congressman's office. They place your name into a lottery, so you'll need a lot of luck. Put in your request for them NOW, there is significant lead time required. Don't feel too disappointed if you don't get them, members of Congress only get a handful of freebie slots outside of the regular tour lottery every year so there's little they can do besides enter your name in.

Most Congressional office still offer staff (usually intern but not always) led tours in addition to the regular ones you get through the CVC. Having given some of them in my days as an intern, the staff-led tours are smaller and more intimate, and might have more local flavor for you. Or you could get the nervous intern who has to lead his first tour with fairly little training. Intern tours and the slight unpredictability factor are a time-honored Washington tradition.

I was a huge political geek and history buff who absolutely hated answering phones and sorting constituent mail, so I led tours whenever I could, giving people a more extensive route than the CVC tour. Absolutely loved hamming it up.

When I gave tours I almost always took my groups into the gallery, and if conditions were right and the group was nondescript enough, I took them into the Capitol Subway (which is usually forbidden). If you're on your own and want to see it, the Rayburn subway on the House side is easier for the public to access than the Senate side subways. I would definitely recommend that if your Congressman offers tours that you take them up on it.

Either way, the CVC tour guides and the types of people that fight their way into Congressional internships love the Capitol and treat it as the temple of democracy that it is. It's an absolutely breathtaking place if you remember what has transpired in the narrow hallways you're walking through.

Don't forget to try the bean soup.
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 5:57 AM on March 8, 2012

Also--if you stop by on a day they're taking votes, you might meet your Congressman. Many of them will go through some effort to arrange their schedules so they can meet the tour groups. People from home are a reminder of why they go through the meatgrinder of elected office.
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 5:58 AM on March 8, 2012

Last followup: special tours of the Capitol Dome itself must be led either by a Congressman or a Chief of Staff. It's unlikely you'll be able to get one, I personally have never been up there, but it never hurts to ask.
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 6:00 AM on March 8, 2012

As a former Congressional intern myself, I just want to say that what Hollywood Upstairs Medical College said is spot-on, although I was there pre-9/11 so I'm not sure how much that's changed things. And you never know who you may pass by (most memorable for me was Ted Kennedy, awesome guy in person) especially in the Subway area when they're in session.
posted by zombieflanders at 6:56 AM on March 8, 2012

We did these several years ago, specifically the State department and the White House. It was worth making the arrangements. I think we needed to provide social security numbers for those tours, for back ground checks. I didn't make the arrangements, but I am pretty damn sure you can't see those locations without the special arrangements. The library of congress you can see without, but you don't get into special areas.

The White house was great, but The State Department was more amazing than I expected. The Library of Congress has amazing workmanship, by immigrant craftsmen.

*One place I recommend that you don't have to go through your congresspersonto get in, is Hillwood.
posted by annsunny at 10:50 AM on March 8, 2012

Former Hill staffer here (Senate and House) and Hollywood Upstairs Medical College has it. When I was a staff assistant, I gave zillions of Capitol tours. I don't think I had a particularly firm grasp of all the historical details (in fact I think there were lots of things in my standard patter that were just flat-out wrong), but I tried to compensate by being entertaining, highlighting features of the Capitol relevant to the state my boss represented, (discreetly) pointing out important people if they happened to walk by, and (to the extent possible) answering questions about the inside workings of a Senate office. I also tried to get a feel for the visitors' interests (history vs. politics vs. art/architecture, etc.) and attention span and tailor my tours to that. Since interns and junior staff have other responsibilities outside of giving tours, becoming Capitol experts may not be high on their priorities unless they happen to be big geeks about that sort of thing (as it sounds like Hollywood was) - from that perspective, CVC tour guides are more likely to win out. However, an intern/staff-led tour is likely to be much smaller (possibly even just the four of you) and have more personality/flavor if I may say so myself. If you would particularly like to (briefly) meet your congressman while you're there, mention that over the phone while scheduling your tour - that can likely be arranged (and as Hollywood mentioned, it's very possible that they would arrange it anyway) (none of this sentence applies if you go through your senator's office - they probably don't have time and don't care, sorry).

Nthing ask for your White House tickets ASAP if you want a chance of getting in. The lottery is brutal and there is not a whole lot that a congressional office's tour coordinator can do to pull strings for you. There are also some other sites that the tour coordinator can set up visits for (the Supreme Court maybe?) or at least give your some useful tourist tips on, but I don't recall what those were, since I never had the pleasure of being stuck with that responsibility.
posted by naoko at 4:27 PM on March 9, 2012

The lottery is brutal and there is not a whole lot that a congressional office's tour coordinator can do to pull strings for you.

By which I mean they can't do much more than submit your request - if you ask too late or just don't happen to get selected, don't blame the tour coordinator. Tour coordinators almost universally hate the White House visitors office for getting most of the credit when a tour slot does come through and none of blame when it doesn't.
posted by naoko at 4:34 PM on March 9, 2012

Thanks, folks. We probably won't do the White House tour for various reasons, but I will try to get some of the other ones, assuming Reddit hasn't managed to get our Congressperson recalled by then!
posted by Addlepated at 7:15 PM on March 9, 2012

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