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Hotel California

I’ve often told people that working on Capitol Hill is kind of like the famous Eagles’ song “Hotel California.”

 

You can check out any time you like. But you can never leave.

 

That means even when Congress is out, they’re in. Press secretaries field frantic calls on their cell phones from journalists at 11:30 at night, trying to confirm a story that will run in the next morning’s Washington Post. Chiefs of staff rise at 3:30 am to get the readout from a meeting a committee chair is having in Moscow or Tokyo.

 

If you work on Capitol Hill, you’re always on. Always on call. Always dialed in.

 

A case study in the “Hotel California” phenomenon came late Tuesday afternoon. The Capitol was a desolate place as Congress was out of session for two weeks. Lawmakers were home in their districts or spread to the four winds on CODELS (Congress-talk for a delegation of lawmakers, usually abroad). Suddenly, word came that members of the Congressional Black Caucus were returning to Washington from Cuba where they met not only Cuban leader Raul Castro, but his ailing brother Fidel.

 

The press conference would start at 5:30 pm.

 

Congress rarely holds news conferences much past 4 pm even when they are in session. And journalists who stayed until midnight on consecutive nights last week to document the House and then Senate approve next year’s budget were hoping to knock off early this week during the Congressional break. Instead, they’d be moored at their computer terminals at the Capitol, writing about this extraordinary set of meetings in Havana.

 

For the press conference, reporters and photographers squeezed into the House Radio-TV Gallery. But the international scope of the press conference summoned even journalists who rarely cover the Capitol. A TV crew from Univision. A reporter from the Miami Herald. The unfamiliar faces forced Jioni Palmer, communications director for the Congressional Black Caucus, to take the rare step of asking the throng to show their press badges to make sure there weren’t interlopers in the room.

 

“So THAT’S how they do it in Cuba,” I said jokingly to Palmer.

 

For the news conference, the lawmakers appeared in all manner of dress. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) wore a pitch black suit with a white shirt and a black tie. Certainly Rush looked the most “Congressional” of the group. For instance Rep. Mel Watt (D-NC) donned a t-shirt, jeans and tennis shoes. Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH) dressed in a red and black track suit. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO) arrived in a tan khaki ensemble.

 

The sartorial choices of the lawmakers reflected two things. First, they dressed comfortably for a long flight back to Washington from a tropical climate. Secondly, it proved that even though they weren’t indicated decked out in their Sunday best, the wheels of Congress are always turning. No matter the time. The day. Or even garb.

 

I planned to leave a little early Tuesday to start my vacation. But instead, I was marooned at the Capitol until almost 8 pm. And I was still fielding emails and answering questions about the Cuba story from home until almost 11 pm.

 

You can check out any time…

 

Several years ago, I flew into Washington’s Dulles airport one evening after visiting my parents in Ohio. The woman I dated at the time lived near the airport. So I swung by her house first. Around 10 pm, my boss called. The House was going to take a crucial vote on a budget measure sometime after midnight. Did I want to come in?

 

Want to? Probably not. Should I? Yes. I grabbed a crumpled suit out of my bag and sped downtown, unshaven. My girlfriend laughed as I got dressed. Her ex-husband had been a volunteer fireman. She said my mad dash out of the house reminded her of when he’d get an emergency call late at night and have to race to the firehouse.

 

I guess the Capitol Hill press corps is kind like firefighters. A Congressional story breaks, no matter the time, and we reporters dash to the scene, ready to spray journalistic foam on the political embers.

 

In the spring of 2005, the Republican Congressional leadership ordered the House and Senate back into session to intercede in the case of Terri Schiavo. Schiavo was a Florida woman who persisted in a vegetative state for years.

 

The House voted at 12:41 am on Palm Sunday to require the federal courts look at whether Schiavo’s feeding tube could be removed.

 

I stood in the Speaker’s Lobby behind the House chamber that night as lawmakers filed in to vote, fresh from the planes from Reagan National Airport. Former GOP Rep. (and now Idaho Governor) Butch Otter, just off a flight from Boise, dropped his suitcases in the doorjamb, voted, grabbed the luggage, and left immediately. Many, regardless of their position on Schiavo, were exasperated.

 

Later that August, both houses of Congress held an emergency session around midnight one night to approve aid dollars for Hurricane Katrina. I wound up being at the Capitol until 4 am the next morning.

 

A few months later, the House and Senate stayed in session nearly around the clock on the weekend just before Christmas to finish work on the government’s annual spending bills. The debate and votes started on Sunday with the final vote just before 7:30 am Monday.

 

Throughout the debate, Democrats excoriated the then-majority Republicans for debating such an important bill “in the middle of the night.”

 

Former House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle (R-IA) defused that argument with this zinger.

 

“We didn’t pass this bill in the middle of the night,” Nussle retorted. “We passed it at the break of dawn!”

 

After that marathon, I finally decamped from the Capitol around 8:30 am on Monday after coming in at 2 pm Sunday afternoon.

 

And it’s just not tedious hours for journalists. The lawmakers, aides, US Capitol Police and staff pull long hours too. In February, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) held open a crucial vote on the stimulus package so Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) could vote after attending his mother’s funeral. Most senators voted around 6 pm. But Brown didn’t vote until hours later, the Senate in a stasis, awaiting his return.

 

But that’s just the nature of the work on Capitol Hill. No one keeps bankers hours in the House and Senate. And if you care to join us, “there’s plenty of room at the Hotel California. Any time of year, you can find it here.”

 

- 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.