Travel Destinations

Friday, July 4, 2014

Touring the Three Branches of Government While Visiting Washington, DC

President Barack Obama Washington, DC
On a visit to the White House you can meet the President.
OK, not really.  But you can pick up your own picture of yourself with the president at a kiosk.
Washington, DC.  The capital of the United States of America.  There may not be many places in the United States as important to visit as Washington, DC as an American, or as someone visiting the United States and wanting to see how the country is run.  If possible, try to visit all three buildings housing the three branches of government.  Even if you’re not really into politics, seeing the three places that run our country can be fascinating and eye-opening.

Executive Branch: The White House

Marine One on the White House Lawn Washington, DC
We may not have met the President, but we did see him take off from the White House lawn in Marine One.
The most difficult to visit of the three branches is the executive branch, or the White House, the home of the President of the United States of America.  The White House is the oldest public building in DC and the location where every President except George Washington has conducted government business.  If you are lucky enough to schedule a tour, visitors can tour a handful of rooms.  Don’t expect to be able to parade through the Oval Office, but you will still walk through rooms you have seen on television countless times.  Probably the most recognizable room on the tour is the East Room, a bright yellow room used for receptions, ceremonies, and press conferences.  Most of the other rooms on the tour are smaller, such as the China Room where pieces of china and glassware used by previous Presidents are displayed.

Tours of the White House are self-guided, but passes must be requested far in advance from your Member of Congress.  Requests can be made no less than 21 days and up to six months in advance.  International visitors can also tour the White House, but must make their requests through their embassy in Washington, DC.  To learn more about the White House or to take a virtual tour, visit the White House’s website.  Cameras and purses are prohibited and photos are not allowed inside the White House, but visitors can bring their cellphones to take pictures on the outside following their visit.

Legislative Branch: The U.S. Capitol

U.S. Capitol Washington, DC
The U.S. Capitol.
The U.S. Capitol houses the legislative branch which includes the Senate and the House of Representatives.  This is where the laws of the land are drafted.  Visitors can visit the U.S. Capitol on their own, watch an orientation video and walk around the Emancipation Hall, but visits deeper into the U.S. Capitol must be made with a guided tour.

U.S. Capitol Rotunda Washington, DC
The Rotunda in the U.S. Capitol.
After watching an orientation video, the guided tour starts in the Rotunda, the room under the U.S. Capitol’s dome.  The dome of the U.S. Capitol was completed while the Civil War was being fought.  The walls of the Rotunda are covered by eight large paintings of important moments in American history.  It was quite a feeling to see in person the Declaration of Independence painting by John Trumbull which I had seen many times in my school history books.  The dome is covered by a fresco of George Washington surrounded by gods and goddesses. Standing inside the Rotunda, visitors are surrounded by statutes of presidents and other important historical figures.

The next stop on the U.S. Capitol tour is the National Statuary Hall.  Here are displayed statues gifted by the states of the union depicting people important to each state.  Some of these statues can also be seen in the Emancipation Hall.  The National Statuary Hall used to be the House of Representatives, so there are plaques on the floor where desks used to stand, including one for the desk of Abraham Lincoln. 

One of the memorable moments of our guided tour was when our tour guide told us about working in the U.S. Capitol on 9/11.  While everyone evacuated the Capitol, the police outside were screaming, “Run as fast as you can as far away as you can!”  Her husband worked at the Pentagon, but thankfully he was not there that fateful day.  

The House Gallery and Senate Gallery are not part of the guided tour, but they can also be visited by acquiring passes from the offices of either your representative or senator.  International visitors can also acquire gallery passes at the appointment desks on the upper level of the Visitors Center.  It was fascinating watching the House and Senate in session.  There were tons of empty seats.  Representatives held conversations and worked on smart phones while others were speaking.  Senators had to list ten great things they did in their careers before talking about the subject at hand.  Young pages sat on the steps, running in and out with messages, probably with aspirations to be political powerhouses themselves.

If you want to tour the Capitol, make advance reservations online.  While same-day passes are sometimes available, there is no guarantee you will be able to join a tour at the time you arrive, or even at all.  Arrive at least 45 minutes prior to your tour time to complete the required security and screening process.  

Judicial Branch: The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court Washington, DC
The Supreme Court of the United States.
The Supreme Court is the judicial branch of the United States government and is the highest tribunal for all legal cases.  The Supreme Court building is huge and impressive and made with bright white marble.  Given my legal background, the Supreme Court was of special interest to me.  Unfortunately the Court was not in session the day we visited, but the doors were open so we were able to get a quick peek into the courtroom. Even when the Court is not in session, visitors can tour the Supreme Court, watch an informative film, and view whatever exhibition is showing at the moment.

Supreme Court Courtroom Washington, DC
A peek into the Supreme Court courtroom.
Visitors can attend oral argument on a first-come, first-seated basis.  Two lines are formed, one for those who wish to attend an entire session, and another for those who just wish to observe the Court in session for a few minutes.  The oral argument calendar can be found on the Supreme Court’s website

Visiting the White House, U.S. Capitol, and Supreme Court take advance planning, but being able to see the government at work and walk through the halls where it all happens is worth the extra effort.

Travel the World: Touring the White House, U.S. Capitol, and Supreme Court while traveling in Washington, D.C.

Katherine Belarmino and Romeo Belarmino are the authors of Travel the World, a travel blog for the everyday working stiff. They work full-time in non-travel related jobs, but take every opportunity they can to travel the world during their limited vacation time.