The U.S. House of Representatives, America’s counterpart to the British House of Commons, was designed to be the sturdiest conceivable check to the threat of elitist rule. There are 435 seats in the House, and have been ever since Alaska and Hawaii became states in 1959 and briefly raised the number to 437. The U.S. Capitol, which houses the House, covers four acres of land, and its five levels contain 16.5 acres of floor space. All in all, somewhere between three and five million people visit the site every year. The House occupies the Capitol’s South Wing.
Despite its origins, today’s House is regarded as far more partisan than the Senate, and due to widespread gerrymandering, only a tiny minority of its seats are ever in serious contention. Sessions of this Congressional chamber––the Senate’s less influential, more populous sibling––are nonetheless always open to public observation, which means you can get a glimpse of the surprisingly cliquey group of leaders. Minimum requirements for service in the House are far lower than those for the Senate or the Presidency, but allegiance to party demands is far more rigidly enforced. There’s even a title –– whip –– for the member of each party whose duty it is to keep his or her colleagues in line. Tuning in to C-SPAN radio during a session of the House of Representatives is like listening to a radio romance from the 1930s, complete with intrigue, backstabbing, and self-inflicted martyrdom.
It’s a show not to be missed.
Admission to the Capitol does not require a ticket, but you will need one to tour the historic Capitol. For any visit, however, you’ll have to register ahead of time. You can do that through your Member of Congress (Go to www.house.gov or www.senate.gov for information about contacting your Representative or Senator), you can register on-line as an individual visitor here, you can register as a large tour group here, or you can try your luck registering in person at the tour kiosks at the Capitol or the information desk at the Capitol Visitor Center. This last option is risky, however, as ticket supplies at these locations are quite limited.
Unlike the Gallery of the Senate, the Gallery of the House of Representatives is open to the public both when the House is in session and when it is not. To enter you’ll need a pass, and this you can only obtain through the office of your Representative.
For more information, visit: www.visitthecapitol.gov
U.S. House of Representatives
Hours: Capitol Visitor Center: 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, except for Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, and Inauguration Day. Gallery of the House of Representatives: 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Parking: There’s no public parking nearby, the closest being at Union Station, north of the Capitol. There is, however, metered parking along the mall.
Metrorail: Nearby Metro stops include Union Station, Capitol South, and Federal Center, SW.