A SECOND OPINION: 'Going up' or down?

Recently I was in a hurry and pressed the “Members Only” button on the elevator. I rode the elevator, and halfway into my ride, a member of Congress stepped into the elevator with me. What is the protocol for being in an elevator with a member? Should I have stepped out of the elevator when he/she got on?


— Starlight

Starlight,

I’m guessing it wasn’t Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) who rode the elevator with you. Otherwise you’d be writing in to ask how to react to a member of Congress after he flips you off. Last month Bunning stuck out his middle finger and yelled, “This is a senators-only elevator!” at a reporter pursuing him to ask about his block on an unemployment-benefits bill.

That anecdote serves as a reminder that many members of Congress take their “Members Only” elevator privileges very seriously.  And what lawmakers take seriously, you should, too.

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According to Architect of the Capitol spokeswoman Eva Malecki, there are seven “Members Only” elevators on the Senate side of the Capitol complex. On the House side, there are three elevators designated “Members Only” when Congress is in session and at least five more that become “Members Only” during votes, she said.

The halls of the Capitol and the surrounding work buildings can get busy quickly — with tourist groups, reporters, staffers and lawmakers all jockeying for space — so I can easily see how you could’ve stepped on an elevator that isn’t your own. The general rule to follow is that you can’t ride a members-only elevator unless you’re invited on by a member of Congress.

I wouldn’t fret too much over your mistake. What I would do is recognize it as an opportunity to introduce yourself to a member of Congress whom you might not already know.

If it was just the two of you on the elevator, I think you made the right decision in staying on. Once the doors closed, you could’ve turned to the member and offered a self-deprecating explanation, à la, “I’m so sorry, Congresswoman Smith; I’m embarrassed that I got on the members-only elevator in my haste to get to the Committee on Committees meeting.”

With any luck, Rep. Smith will be gracious, offering a forgiving smile and a reply akin to: “No, no — it’s fine. I’m going to the same meeting,” at which point you can say, “You are? Oh, great. I’m Starlight, Congressman Skye’s legislative aide on committees.” Who knows? Maybe Rep. Smith will remember you down the road when she becomes chairwoman of the Committee on Committees and needs more staff.

That’s the best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario isn’t far from the Bunning scene. If, after you offer your gracious apology, the member expresses hostility, tell him or her that you will get off at the next floor.

And just to play it safe, take the stairs the rest of the way.

Do you have a question for A Second Opinion?  Send it to secondopinion@thehill.com.

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