Romancing the Capitol

For those with access, the Capitol Dome is often used as the venue for defining moments in a relationship.

And no one has more access than House Administration Committee Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio), dubbed the “mayor” of Capitol Hill.

On Feb. 14, 2001, Ney used a Dome tour to propose to his then-girlfriend, Elizabeth, though they had to stop midway through their 300-step trek to the top because she was afraid of heights. They were married three months later.

Even Capitol Police officers normally need special permission to ascend the steep stairs, but that’s what Officer Christopher Hall got last April when he proposed to his girlfriend Piper Anderson.

The occasion wasn’t without its speed bumps, she said. First, to get her up there, he had to tell her a white lie, that the Dome was going to be closing for security reasons. Then the Capitol Police temporarily misplaced the key to the stairwell. Finally, when the couple got outside on the roof, it was raining.

Hall was understandably adamant about continuing. After pointing out the monuments and other sites of interest from the Dome, he got down on one knee and popped the question. She said yes.

But for all the romantic activity around the Dome, there has only been one marriage there, said Associate Senate Historian Don Ritchie — it was in 1904 between two amateur photographers. Tripods in hand, the newlyweds began snapping pictures as soon as the ceremony was over.

Today, however, all religious ceremonies, including weddings, are off-limits in the Capitol, said Meg Saunders, a spokeswoman for the Senate Chaplain. She said that, despite several requests her office receives, the House and Senate chaplains must refuse, citing an “unofficial” rule.

The respective chaplains, however, do officiate at weddings off-site at the request of members or staffers, and the chaplains have “married a number of people” in her four-plus years at the Capitol, said Saunders.

Another way to tie a wedding into Congress and the Capitol is to request that a flag be flown over the building in honor of the bride and groom. Posts on the whollymatrimony.com wedding website have promoted the idea. As with all flags, the betrothed can request it through their congressman or senator, and the flag arrives with a letter from the Architect of the Capitol describing what the flag was for and when it had been flown.

No sooner had the Capitol been built than enterprising lovers began appropriating its many nooks and crannies for their own purposes.

“Before the Library of Congress was built,” Ritchie said, “the West Front was the library, with access to the balcony, and it was known as the lovers’ balcony.”

Today, that role falls largely to the Speaker’s balcony and the appropriations balcony, with their stunning panoramic views of the city.

The Speaker’s balcony is a popular hot spot for wedding proposals, although you wouldn’t necessarily glean that by talking to Speaker Dennis Hastert’s (R-Ill.) press office.

“The stated policy is that there is supposed to be no private use of the Capitol or its facilities for personal activities,” said Communications Director Pete Jeffries. “That’s what the official policy is. Now, it has been known from time to time that people have used locations throughout the Capitol — be it the Capitol steps, in front of the Capitol Christmas tree, or on rare occasions the Speaker’s balcony — for major announcements or proposals.”

Capitol insiders report that receiving permission to use the Speaker’s balcony, even for the lovely occasion of a proposal, is difficult, if not impossible, unless you know someone in the office.

The Summer House on the Senate side of the West Front, was built in the late 1800s to provide a place for visitors to rest and drink from its fountain. More recently, the secluded, stone and Spanish mission tile structure has become a haven for lovebirds on a stroll through the grounds, or staffers meeting for an outdoor lunch in warmer months.

The Hill spoke with Capitol Police officers who said they’ve “more than once” stumbled upon an un-suspecting couple “enjoying a moment” in the Summer House.

Of course, as is the case anywhere else that the rich, powerful and young call their office, the Capitol is no stranger to slightly racier episodes.

Rita Jenrette, a congressional spouse turned Playboy eye candy, revealed that more than group photos take place on the Capitol steps. In the early ’80s, Jenrette was married to then-Rep. John Jenrette (D-S.C.), who was sent to prison for taking bribes. Alongside her Playboy pictorial were her recollections of congressional peccadilloes, including a tryst with her husband on the Capitol steps.

Multiple congressional sources confirm that such shenanigans — at least among staffers — are quite common on the Hill of 2005. They cite empty committee rooms, parking garages in the evenings and even members’ hideaways as places where staffers get to know each other better.

The “holy grail” for romantic encounters is members’ offices — during recess. One House staffer said: “You’d be surprised what people get away with.”