Apr 22, 2020

Congress and Crises: Past Challenges and Examples of Extraordinary Leadership

In the face of the current coronavirus pandemic, Congress is facing a new and unprecedented crisis. However, this is not the first time our democratic institutions have been dealt a challenging hand in recent times. While vastly different for a variety of reasons, the September 11th attacks and subsequent anthrax and ricin scares are a testament to Congress’s resiliency in the face of catastrophe. Despite this, it begs the questions: How did Congress adapt and become more resilient? Were there exemplary demonstrations of leadership during this time?

Three former senior Hill staff give an inside look at what Capitol Hill was like during these crises nearly twenty years ago. While Congress is now facing a different crisis of a global scale, we can look to these examples as a reminder that our democratic institutions are periodically challenged and can prevail, hopefully, to become even stronger.

Michele Nellenbach, Director, Strategic Initiatives and former Senior Professional Staff Member, Senate EPW Committee 

For both 9-11 and the Anthrax crisis, I was at work in the Hart Senate Office Building where EPW had one of its two offices. I had experienced previous periodic evacuations because of suspicious packages and similar false alarms, but I hadn’t felt unsafe until the American Airlines flight 77 hit the Pentagon. At that point following a panicked call from my mother, I gathered up a few things and corralled some younger staff and joined hundreds of our colleagues streaming out of the building. Unfortunately, in my subsequent six years with the committee, I never quite got back to feeling 100 percent safe.

9-11 did create a great sense of community among Hill staff. Those of us in the Hart building with offices that face the internal courtyard, hung flags from our office windows to show unity – a small gesture that felt empowering. Democrat or Republican, we all felt like we had survived something together and that unity lasted and helped when Anthrax hit in October. 

We left on Monday, October 15 knowing that anthrax-laden letters had been sent to Sen. Daschle, but I don’t remember being concerned. It got very real on Tuesday morning when to my surprise, the Capitol Hill police stopped me from going into my office. I joined my colleagues in the committee’s Dirksen office and waiting for updates and instructions.

Later that morning, our clerk announced that all of us who had been in Hart the previous day had to be tested for exposure.  We stood in line outside one of the committee rooms waiting to be tested while reporters wandered the hall.  Reporters were also on hand when we received our test results. I remember thinking how invasive it felt to have them there and surreal to be in a situation that would be of such interest to the world.  

Our committee staff ultimately all crowded into our Dirksen office – I had a small desk by the front door in the committee lobby from which I conducted business. However, personal offices located in Hart had to be housed in conference rooms – imagine sitting in a conference room for three months with your boss! Plus, this is before smartphones and the cloud when we still used Rolodexes and paper files. We were scrambling for office space, computers, desks and to do our work without all our files, etc. It is odd to think now how unprepared the institution was to have one of its buildings taken out of commission. 

We would not be allowed back in our offices for 3 months which would include a few weeks at home while logistics for housing all the displaced offices were worked out and numerous rumors and promises that the offices would be open ‘any day now.’

Each crisis certainly left a mark on the institution from the physical hardening to the new mail procedures and for a short time, they brought the staff closer together. Thankfully, in my remaining six years with the committee, we were not similarly tested again although endured more ‘suspicious’ packages and two terrifying violations of the Capitol air space.  I do believe the crises left the institution more aware of its vulnerabilities and ultimately stronger. Hopefully, when staff are able to return they can find some goodwill in their common experiences of helping their bosses and constituents through the crisis.  

John Richter, Director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Congress Project and former Chief of Staff to Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME):

9-11 was a day that quite literally came out of the blue – a brilliant blue September sky. I was working for Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME) at the time. It seemed that no one on Capitol Hill was truly prepared for the aftermath of what happened. After initially milling around the park next to the Russell Senate building, having no idea what to do next as we’d been told to evacuate but never drilled for such an event, I remember joining a number of our staff to wander to the home of Senator Mike DeWine’s legislative director (he was across the hall from us) somewhere in the city for most of the remainder of the day.

The senator’s most senior staff gathered with my boss at her condo close by. There, she heard from another senator who was a neighbor that some senators were gathering at Capitol Police Headquarters. This was all word of mouth as there was no cell phone service because the system was overwhelmed – a failing we all encountered in the hours after the attacks. As I understand it, after some initial confusion since there wasn’t a plan for an event like this, congressional leadership was eventually moved to a secure location outside the city.

That evening in a show of leadership, Republican House Speaker Denny Hastert and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle stood together on the Capitol steps with about 150 representatives and senators, to declare a unified front between the two parties and the two chambers. Additionally, President Bush and legislative leaders rose to the occasion with not only expressions but acts of bipartisanship. As the president left the chamber after speaking to a joint session of Congress, he and Senator Daschle shook hands and then embraced. It may have been a small step, but it was powerful symbolism.

At the same time, 9-11 brought many shortcomings to light – from general communications issues to physical security of the Capitol complex to the necessity for quick and early alert systems in the Capitol office buildings. It was hard to imagine when the Anthrax scare hit only weeks later that we were now living through yet another new, dangerous situation. Most of the staff remained working at home – without the kind of technological connections we take for granted today – while a number of us hunkered down with Senator Snowe in her “hideaway” (small office in the basement of the Capitol itself). Once more, the “world’s greatest deliberative body” seemed to be operating by the seat of its pants in a cobbled-together fashion in the wake of another unforeseen event.

Franz Wuerfmannsdobler, Senior Advisor at the Bipartisan Policy Center and former Legislative Assistant to Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV)

Fall 2001 turned into one of the most eventual and unsettling times on Capitol Hill. It led to many changes both visible and invisible in the application of technology, focus on security, and the emergence of community. At the time, I was a legislative assistant for Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) working in the Hart Building. Tuesday, September 11 started out as a quiet, clear fall morning, but within minutes of arriving in the office, we were sent home uncertain about where the unaccounted for the fourth plane was going to hit or what else might be out there. Most offices were shut down for more than a week and communications among staff were very limited given the state of technology at the time. The reality of the Twin Towers and Pentagon tragedies became more fixated by the public, and members and staff started getting back to work with a focus on security legislation and the economic and geopolitical fallout from those events.

Unbeknownst to many, letters from an unknown source containing weaponized anthrax were being sent through the mail starting a week after 9/11. They were delivered to diverse targets, including several senators’ offices. A letter to Senator Daschle, the Senate Majority Leader, was opened on Monday morning, October 15. His personal office was only two floors directly above my own office. The net result of white powder spilled from the opened letter in that south side Hart mail room meant completely shutting down the entire office building by Tuesday evening. No one had time to prepare for this. Many Capitol Hill member offices, committees, and other administrative services were either relocated or without space for several weeks, and many staff was required to take Cyprofloxacin (cypro), a powerful antibiotic with possibly bad side effects. The Hart Building was decontaminated over the course of several more months, and members and staff did not return to their offices until late January 2002. This was the equivalent of almost five months of semi-functional bedlam, but Congress continued to do its work.

What were some of those challenges during a different crisis? Well, technology was much more limited. There were few cell phones, no remote access to central servers, and limited Internet capabilities that are now so prevalent in everything we do today. Imagine social media in its unembellished infancy.  Facebook, Skype Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat, to name a few platforms so prevalent now, all launched within the coming decade.  Some of the legislative and congressional work simply stopped, in part, due to technology limits. It was a time when snail mail inboxes were as voluminous as email inboxes. That quickly changed given concerns about what might be in the mail. All mail to the Hill was scanned and thus slowed down significantly, which encouraged the greater use of email and email attachments for communication. There was a much greater focus on security. All federal buildings on the Hill are now ringed by small stone walls, three-foot-tall green pillars, guardhouses, and pop-up street barriers. All are the results of the post-9/11 security strategy. Many more features are in place far beyond these obvious physical signs.

However, one of the most memorable during that time was also that greater sense of community. American flags were hanging everywhere in Hart for several years as a sign of patriotic support. During the anthrax Hart displacement, those with extra space provided it to colleagues’ staff who needed room. Some hearing rooms and common space turned into offices. Those who went to work there every day felt like their work mattered, and they were contributing to rebuilding and healing the country. It was a very strange time but also made me want to stay and continue to contribute to the national effort to transform after this series of tragedies.

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