Sunday, September 27, 2020

Quiet at the Capitol is a reminder summer traditions are on hold amid pandemic

May 24. 2020
n this 2006 file photo, audience members react to a solemn tribute to those who have died during the National Memorial Day concert on the West Lawn of the Capitol. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey.
n this 2006 file photo, audience members react to a solemn tribute to those who have died during the National Memorial Day concert on the West Lawn of the Capitol. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey.
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By  The Washington Post · Paul Kane · NATIONAL, CONGRESS 

WASHINGTON - For more than 30 years the National Memorial Day Concert has served as the unofficial launch of the congressional summer, kick-starting events and rituals that have been a key part of Washington and shaped the future lives for younger Americans. 

Paying tribute to the nation's fallen military, thousands of people would pack the Capitol's West Lawn for a patriotic tribute with a diverse cast of musicians and celebrities, aired live on PBS. 

In the days that follow a new crop of aspiring teenagers usually arrive to serve as Senate pages, along with thousands of mostly college-age students starting their stints as interns for members of Congress. Five nights a week, just before sundown, one of the military bands performs a concert for hundreds of tourists on the Capitol steps. 

And the entire summer builds to "A Capitol Fourth" celebration on the West Lawn, before thousands of tourists, as roughly 700,000 take up spots along the National Mall for a fireworks display over the Washington Monument after 9 p.m. on July 4. 

Now, with a global pandemic killing nearly 100,000 Americans and more than 38 million losing their jobs amid the shutdown, these traditions have been turned upside down.

The House and Senate are struggling to function in this era of social distancing, with a tiny fraction of the number of staff showing up to the Capitol complex for work and the rest working from home. 

Veteran lawmakers say their focus is on the health and economic crises gripping the nation, but they also lament the opportunities that will be lost as the shutdown of the Capitol shows no end in sight. 

"It's a reminder to us how profoundly this virus has impacted everybody," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said in a telephone interview Friday. "Nobody has experienced this before. We're being discombobulated, but so is everybody else."

The Memorial Day concert is transitioning, like so much of America, into a remote video setting Sunday, with actors Joe Mantegna and Gary Sinise taking their regular emcee role. 

Last spring Carlos Mark Vera celebrated Congress finally agreeing to pay interns, hopeful that even a small stipend would help lower-income students live in Washington while interning on Capitol Hill.

Now, Vera, co-founder of Pay Our Interns, is scrambling to get offices to still hire interns for the summer and let them work remotely. The House Administration Committee issued new rules in early May allowing offices to use their $25,000 pot of intern funding to pay those who work back in the district while letting offices issue laptop computers to them. 

For Vera, the good news is that more than 200 offices participated in a webinar his organization hosted to teach staffers how to onboard interns remotely. The bad news is that this summer's group will likely never set foot in a congressional office, possibly never meeting the lawmaker they work for or interns from other offices with completely different backgrounds and life experiences. 

"Virtual is not always the same," Vera said Friday, "but our stance is, something is better than nothing."

Hoyer said he is still in touch with some people he interned with when he was a University of Maryland undergraduate, a volunteer opportunity that quickly led to getting a permanent job. "If I couldn't have done that that summer, that may have changed my whole life," he said. 

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, said another tradition for young service is on hold, with the page classes of the summer canceled. 

The last group of Senate pages had one of the most historic runs ever, beginning their service in the middle of President Donald Trump's impeachment trial. They played a high-profile role of ferrying questions from individual senators to the desk where Chief Justice John Roberts presided. 

Senators gave them a loud ovation on the last day of the trial, but a little more than five weeks later their tenure came to an abrupt end. In a virus era, it's just not safe to have several dozen teenagers, who live together in a dorm a couple blocks away, ferrying paper and glasses of water to elderly senators. 

Blunt is hopeful that by the fall Senate pages can return. 

The Architect of the Capitol, overseeing much of the complex's operations, has created an entire website for students to try to recreate a field trip to Washington, including a virtual tour of the building. 

And, in one sign of normalcy, the Architect's office has installed ramps at the Capitol Reflecting Pool to help ducklings climb in and out of the water, up over sloped limestone that rings the pool, as they do every summer. 

But so much of the culture has been sidelined, if not outright canceled. 

A stroll down the National Mall on Thursday evening found a mostly empty landscape, with the grass areas roped off. Normally, hundreds of congressional staffers would be playing in the co-ed softball leagues, which have postponed their seasons until the National Park Service deems it safe for such events on the Mall. 

The congressional baseball and softball games have been indefinitely postponed. The two annual events - Republican lawmakers play Democrats in baseball and the bipartisan women's team takes on a team of female reporters - have raised millions of dollars for local charities and brought lawmakers together in a competitive, bipartisan spirit. 

"These events reinforce the national character and they reinforce the significance of the Capitol," Blunt said. "And when they don't happen, I think people miss them, and I believe there will be a real desire to get back to these events as quickly as we can."

Looming large is the July Fourth celebration, which seems certain to be either done entirely in a remote video setting or with a dramatically smaller footprint. 

"The odds are that we're likely not to have the kind of event that we have had in the past," Blunt said. 

Hoyer said those events will come back eventually, but some lost experiences could have long ripple effects. As a freshman in college, Hoyer heard then-Sen. John F. Kennedy during a visit to campus, prompting him to major in government and leading to his days as a congressional intern and staffer.

Today, Maryland's campus is closed, interns aren't coming to the Capitol and those types of interactions will not occur. 

"Time is the one commodity you can't replace," Hoyer said. 


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