East Coast 08, part 2: Government at work – no, really!

High of 90, humidity 79%

Senator Patty Murray has a weekly coffee scheduled for constituents visiting DC. We joined about 35 other Washingtonians in the Russell Senate Office Building, briefly introduced ourselves to one another, and had pictures taken. After our photo op with her, Senator Murray leaned over to Zack and said, “Now the worst part of your day is over.” She took some time to talk about current issues before the Senate, and heard some concerns of those in attendance. We appreciated her warmth, attentive listening, and responsiveness to questions, and we loved that the kids had a little personal interaction with her. Lauren said she could tell that Patty Murray is a mom.

Senator Murray told us that the Senate was scheduled to vote that morning on reauthorizing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and some proposed amendments to it, and she encouraged us to observe if we could. We snapped up passes from her office and headed for the Senate Gallery. Got to sit right in front with a bird’s eye view of the chamber. Unfortunately, only a few senators were present at first – Russ Feingold, Arlen Specter, Jeff Bingaman, Christopher Bond. Who’s that inattentive man sitting up front reading and writing notes while people are speaking? That’s so rude. Oh, no wonder – it’s Dick Cheney. If only I had a rubber band and some spitwads. The kids were completely bored listening to the senators reading statements into the record. But when Lauren started to doze off, an usher came over immediately and told her that sleeping was not permitted in the gallery. Nor was it allowed to rest hands or elbows on the balcony railing. Excu-u-use us!

After an hour or so, a few more people began trickling into the Senate Chamber – must be nearing a vote. Then we started recognizing faces: Daniel Inouye, Joseph Lieberman, Mitch McConnell, Harry Reid, Diane Feinstein, Elizabeth Dole, Maria Cantwell, Susan Collins, John Kerry, Joe Biden, Larry Craig… There was an audible gasp when Hillary Clinton entered looking like a million bucks in an orange blazer. Now the kids were wide awake. Barack Obama waved back at the people sitting right behind us. Wow – they’re just like human beings. Soon almost all of them were present, and we watched votes on three amendments to FISA.

The senators were not a very orderly bunch. Very few sat in their seats, preferring to talk in clusters all around the chamber. And not quietly, either. Numerous attempts to gavel the gregarious group to silence failed. After they’d voted many left as quickly as they had arrived. There would be another vote on the FISA bill itself, but not for a while. All of the Senate offices are within 7.5 minutes of the Senate floor so when a vote is called they can hustle over in time.

Though we were in the gallery more than two hours, even the kids were glad we didn’t leave before the votes. They were thrilled to see faces they knew, and we would have missed an unforgettable opportunity to glimpse part of the work on a historic piece of legislation. We didn’t have the requisite letter from our senator to eat in the Senate Dining Room, so we walked back to the apartment for lunch.

Security around Washington made some areas seem a bit like a war zone. In addition to thousands of guards and police visible everywhere, we saw roads and driveways protected by no-nonsense pop-up barriers; check out before and after pictures of a dump truck’s encounter with one of these suckers. (And note that after the crash, the barrier could be repaired in three hours with $7 worth of parts from a local hardware store.) Bags were checked at every museum, monument, office building, and even some cafes and restaurants. I’m trying not to be too preachy here, but there is a lot to say on the choice between an open society and a ‘safe’ one.

Back in downtown DC we gawked at massive buildings (like the FBI) and beautiful architecture (like the Old Post Office Building). Thought about visiting Ford’s Theatre, but the heat addled our brains before we got there. We just ducked in and out of air conditioned places instead, one of which was a gallery with a thoroughly entertaining exhibit of Stephen Hansen’s work. As we found out later in the trip, you don’t always find stuff in art galleries that makes you laugh out loud.

Visited the National Japanese American Memorial To Patriotism During World War II, a beautiful outdoor tribute to the character and loyalty of Japanese Americans interned during WWII, and to those who performed heroic military service in Europe while their families were held in concentration camps by the US government. This was especially poignant for us because Susan’s parents were among those in the camps, and her Dad was one of the many who enlisted while in camp, and served with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

An early evening sprinkle prompted us to begin walking home. It quickly became a downpour, turning the gutters into rivers and completely soaking us in moments. These weren’t the little raindrops we’re used to in Seattle; these were gigantic, heavy, splashy ones. It was like getting bombarded with warm water balloons. The thunderstorm only lasted a few minutes, and our clothes had started to dry by the time we reached the apartment. On the way home we saw our first fireflies blinking on and off in grassy areas beneath the trees. Definitely have to check them out under more favorable weather conditions.

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