The Speaker’s Lobby: Storm of the Century

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

05 February 2010

The House of Representatives voted Thursday to raise the debt limit.

Little was it known that lawmakers also voted to hike the snow limit.

Perhaps if they had only read the bill….

Capitol Hill felt different Friday. Apprehensive staffers trudged their way through the grey morning from the Capitol South Metro station en route to the House office buildings. Many aides left their skirts, heels and pinstripe business suits hanging in their closets. Instead, Uggs, North Face jackets and wool hats were de rigueur Friday. Forecasters predicted that more than 30 inches of snow could crush Washington by Sunday morning.

It was the second meteorological broadside to be christened the “Storm of the Century” in the past six weeks.

The steroid era in Major League Baseball maybe over. Perhaps it’s now moved to weather systems. I don’t know if this storm masquerades as Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire. I have clue if this storm uses “the cream” or “the clear.” But it is definitely juiced.

The U.S. Senate didn’t meet Friday. And the House of Representatives was only scheduled for an abbreviated, “pro forma” session.

At 9:02 am, a Congressional official carefully carried a long, silver and ebony rod into the House chamber. Known as the “Mace,” it’s the official symbol of the House. The presentation of the Mace signals the start of each session. A plainclothes Capitol Police officer stood at the rear of the public viewing gallery and ordered “All rise!”

Only there were no members of the public on hand to rise.

With a blizzard on tap, the House conducted the nation’s business without a single spectator.

House Chaplain Fr. Daniel Coughlin then delivered the opening prayer. Perhaps mindful that schools were out of session and would probably be called off through at least Monday, Coughlin asked God to “inspire children to be industrious and responsible in their school work” and to “make their homes true schools of love.”

With the dire snow predictions facing Washington, home may be the only place kids will be for a few days. And despite Coughlin’s pleadings, school work is the furthest thing from the minds of most Washington, DC-area children. They’re probably focused instead on days of Wii, PlayStation and sledding down the legendary “Masonic Temple” hillside in suburban Alexandria, VA.

As is often the case when the House meets in a pro forma session, the Democratic leadership tapped Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) to preside over the abridged meeting. And she was the only lawmaker on hand. As Edwards later trekked through the Congressional tunnels to her office in the Cannon Building, the Congresswoman noted that the snow burst would provide her a needed respite.

“I finally get a weekend,” she said.

Lawmakers keep insane schedules. Toiling at the Capitol all week. Then back to their districts to hold town hall meetings, attend ribbon cuttings and speak to the Rotary Club.

But the storm dashed all of Edwards’s weekend speaking engagements, including an anniversary celebration at a local church. Thus, she had entered a previously unheard of state for a Member of Congress. She had time on her hands with nothing to do.

“I’ll make some guacamole and fajitas and curl up and watch the football game,” Edwards said, referring to Sunday’s Super Bowl tilt.

Edwards said she was amazed at how early her weekend events were postponed.

“I thought people would wait to cancel,” she said.

But Edwards said she’d take advantage of the snow. She lives in Oxon Hill, MD, close to the Potomac River. She said she’ll get out Saturday and walk to the water and take in the snowfall.

“It’s just so beautiful,” Edwards said.

Meantime, Rep. Tom Perriello (D-VA) found himself as the only Member of Congress holding a news conference at the Capitol Friday. And even though reporters covering the event eschewed their suits for flannel lumberjack shirts, Perriello dressed as though it was a standard day on Capitol Hill. He sported a charcoal grey suit with blue piping and a smart, silk tie.

“Thank you for braving the weather,” Perriello told the reporters a little past 10 am, just as the sky began to spit the first, wet flakes of snow.

House leaders tapped Perriello and fellow freshman Rep. Betsy Markey (D-CO) to unveil legislation that would lift antitrust exemptions for health reform companies. But because of the snow, Markey skipped the press conference to board an early morning flight back to her district. Each weekend, Perriello usually drives two hours back to his home near Charlottesville, VA. But the Congressman conceded that this might be the first weekend of his Congressional career that he stayed in Washington. And like Edwards, his speaking engagements at a pancake breakfast and a chamber of commerce meeting were already cancelled.

There’s an old saw that says that “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night” will keep the Postal Service from its appointed rounds.

And the same goes for lobbyists on Capitol Hill. Even amid the “Snowcalypse.”

Several lobbyists representing health insurance companies and casualty insurers rubbered their way into Perriello’s press conference to buttonhole reporters at the end. One senior House Democratic aide described the tactic as “a little aggressive.” But that’s the game in Washington. Regardless of the forecast.

Some Congressional offices elected to shut down for the day Friday. Others were open for business. And one staffer conceded she was “unusually/distressingly busy for a snowy Friday.”

By late morning, about 600 non-essential Capitol staff were sent home and the Congressional cafeterias and restaurants began to shutter early. But tours of the Capitol remained on. A small trickle of visitors continued to descend on the underground Capitol Visitor Center (CVC).

John Kolenski of suburban Cincinnati sat on a bench in the CVC and waited to join a tour. As the head of food safety for Kroger (the country’s largest supermarket chain), he was visiting Washington for a conference and planned to spend the weekend with his wife seeing the sites, particularly the Smithsonian.

“My wife likes to call things an ‘adventure,’” Kolenski said. “So this will be an adventure.”

But Kolenski knows the storm could close many of the venues he wants to see.

“I guess we’ll be in the hotel watching a little television,” Kolenski said if he couldn’t venture out in the snow.”

Sean Moylan of Omaha, NE, was also on hand for a tour of the Capitol, with his girlfriend, Eva Massmann who lives in Washington. Moylan skirted the storm on both ends, having just landed in Washington Friday morning before coming to the Capitol.

“There’s a blizzard in Omaha. So I consider myself lucky to have gotten here,” Moylan said. He noted that the airlines were starting to cancel flights in and out of Washington just as he arrived.

Moylan said he’s scheduled to return to Nebraska on Sunday. But his girlfriend affectionately wrapped both arms around Moylan’s waist and gave him a long gaze.

“Oh, he’ll be camping out here for a while,” Massmann glowed, perhaps secretly thanking Mother Nature for her good fortune. “Why would he want to leave?”

–         Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.

–         The Speaker’s Lobby is a long, ornate hallway that runs behind the dais in the House chamber. Lawmakers, aides and journalists often confer there during votes.