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Letter From Washington 

For members of Louisiana's congressional delegation, life in the Capitol City might be changed forever.

For Sen. John Breaux, leaving his office during the Capitol Hill anthrax scare has also meant leaving behind his goldfish -- who live in a bowl just a few doors down from where anthrax spores were first discovered in the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. Since October, the fish have been fed by staffers wearing protective gear, and Breaux says he's not worried.

"These are Louisiana fish, they're tough," says Breaux.

Toughness has been the order of the day in Washington in the months following Sept. 11, when members of Louisiana's delegations -- like most of the nation's 280 million inhabitants -- first learned of the attacks.

Like all Americans outside of New York City and the Pentagon area, Sen. Mary Landrieu saw the horrific events unfold on the morning news. "We saw it all from our office television," recalls Landrieu of that morning in September. "We knew the first tower had been hit, and when the second one went, there was no doubt in my mind that our country was under attack."

News of the crash of American Airlines Flight 77 into Wedge One of the Pentagon building cemented that belief. "When we were hit ... I gathered our staff together and we all said a little prayer, and then we decided we should leave the Capitol," says Landrieu, whose instincts confirmed a hunch aired just hours later on national television by John McCain: the flight to the Pentagon, or most likely the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, was probably meant for the Capitol.

"Everyone kept saying that," recalls John La Place, press secretary for New Orleans Congressman William Jefferson. "It just made sense -- the Capitol is the highest building in Washington, the most visible structure around. Plus, there's its symbolic worth as a target."

Like hundreds of other lawmakers, Landrieu dismissed her junior staffers for the day while ushering top administrative aides to meet elsewhere, in this case her townhouse some six blocks away from the Capitol. A handful of Landrieu's staff crowded around her kitchen table, while others tried to get work done on an upstairs computer used by the Senator's son.

"Everyone was saying we should just stay away from the Capitol for awhile," recalls Rep. John Cooksey of northeast Louisiana, who is planning to run against Landrieu for her Senate seat next year.

"Our offices are in the House Cannon Building, which is the oldest building still being used by members of Congress," says Cooksey. "During the next couple of days every member of Congress was briefed. We were told that we were probable targets of attack, so it seemed like a smart idea for us to work elsewhere, at least initially."

The nine members of the Louisiana congressional delegation -- Sens. Landrieu and Breaux, as well as the seven representatives the state sends to Washington -- primarily work out of four massive marble buildings: the Hart Senate Building, the Cannon House Building, the Longworth House Building, and the Rayburn House Building. They are supported by a combined staff of more than 100 people.

Just one month after the Sept. 11 attack, when Landrieu and her staff were working again out of her offices in the Hart Senate Building, a letter filled with anthrax spores was discovered in Daschle's office. Suddenly the horror returned.

"Everyone was told, again, to leave," says Breaux. "Not right away, but maybe about two days later. We were all told that we must vacate the premises, and we did."

Both Breaux and Landrieu fielded calls from concerned parents whose teenage children were working as interns in the senators' offices. "Naturally they wanted them to come back," says Breaux. The interns, like everyone else in the Hart Senate Building who worked or even briefly visited there, were put on a daily dosage of Cipro, the powerful oral antibiotic that is also known for often unpleasant side effects including nausea and abdominal pain.

"It hurts your stomach," says Breaux. "A lot of us -- including me -- ended up having to take something else."

Interns generally work in congressional offices on a timetable that accommodates their academic schedule, usually beginning in September. The hundreds of young people who came to Washington this year, notes Bob Livingston, the former Republican congressman from Louisiana's 1st District, "have really had a rough time of it."

Livingston, now a principal partner in the Washington lobbying and consulting firm the Livingston Group, recently observed a group of interns in the Capitol and thought they all looked "a little glassy-eyed and bewildered."

"You have to feel sorry for them," Livingston says. "They went through 9/11, then they had to deal with the anthrax scare and they've been moved all over hell and high water because so many of the different offices have been closed and moved.

"And now," Livingston adds, speaking in a late-December interview, "they are really putting in long hours because Congress is trying to get its job done before Christmas, making up for all of the interruptions of this extraordinary season."

To some Washington insiders, however, the long hours are the good news. "People are working, bills are getting passed, the members are going over amendments on their laptops, working in makeshift offices," says Thomas Mann, a long-time congressional analyst with the Brookings Instititute. "Life goes on. The system has survived."

Yet nothing seems as it was before. The streets near the Capitol and White House are still eerily empty. As in New Orleans, tourists are a mainstay of the District of Columbia's economy, and they are far less evident than before. Last year on the Friday following Thanksgiving, more than 50,000 people visited the Smithsonian Institution's American History gallery. This year, just more than l8,000 came.

The windows on the Capitol are now shatter-proof. Snipers have been visible on the roofs of the various congressional office buildings. Concrete barriers block access to both the Capitol and the White House. Congressional aides -- there are more than 16,000 of them -- keep trusty supplies of rubber gloves, flashlights and even gas masks nearby.

"You can't get into the Capitol unless you have a special pass," says Livingston, who as a former member of Congress is granted automatic entry. "And even if you do get in, you will have been in all likelihood stopped three or four times to show your ID, and the trunk of your car will be inspected if you park in the Capitol parking lot. At least twice someone will take a stick with a mirror at the end of it and walk around and inspect under the carriage of your car."

And when visitors park their cars and shut off their engines, bomb-sniffing dogs suddenly appear to conduct their own investigations.

Inside the Capitol, the massive ornate halls that once echoed with the voices and murmurs of tour groups have largely been silent. "I used to really enjoy taking small groups of my constituents over to the Capitol, to just show them around," says Cooksey, "but now that is a much more difficult thing to do. You just can't walk in like before."

Indeed, although Capitol Hill police finally decided to open up the Capitol for tours during the first week of December, an uncomfortable sense of urgency still pervades: visitors are checked in at an off-site screening facility before being allowed to enter. Briefcases, oversized backpacks, bottles, cans, and, of course, knives are strictly prohibited.

Access to the Capitol's basement subway -- long one of the most popular tourist sites -- has also been curtailed.

For most members of Congress and their aides, the biggest adjustment remains their inability to return to their offices. Files of information on legislative matters remain out of reach. In addition, the anthrax scare means all mail to Congress has been kept in a holding facility in Ohio, and no one is certain if it will ever be delivered.

"We've heard talk that it may all eventually be destroyed," says La Place.

Constituents can still contact their representatives via phone or email, but the postal service has traditionally remained the most popular means of communicating with representatives. A normal week might bring up to 500,000 letters from constituents and other interested correspondents.

"Mail is the lifeblood of Congress," says Mann. "And not getting it has created some real discomfort among the members."

Mann thinks that by monitoring local newspaper and TV news coverage and using their district staffs as their eyes and ears, those in Congress "are able to engage in a pretty effective form of political surveillance." But if the mail stoppage continues, he adds, it's going to cause problems. "It interferes with the normal flow of communication between the constituents and the men and women they have elected to serve them in Washington."

For Landrieu, that flow also includes the freedom that people from Louisiana and the other states exercise when they travel to Washington and simply stroll into the Capitol. Contemplating the events of Sept. 11 and beyond, she says, has reinforced in her a belief that Washington should remain, as history demands, a place where the seat of power is accessible.

click to enlarge MARK WILSON
  • Mark Wilson
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