What's that smell? Well, if you were to ask House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, it's the smell of progress. Yesterday, the halls of Congress in the vicinity of the floor of the House of Representatives might have a strong cigarette and cigar odor. But today, visitors, congressmen and all those who pack the nation's Capitol can breathe easy as the nation's first female Speaker has instituted a ban on smoking in the formal sitting area adjacent to the floor of the House, known as the Speaker's Lobby.
In a statement released this morning, Speaker Pelosi proclaimed, "The days of smoke-filled rooms in the United States Capitol are over," insisting Congress set an example for the rest of the nation.
For those of us who cover Congress on a daily basis, this is somewhat of a big deal and certainly a change in historical precedent. The Speaker's Lobby is essentially an extension of the House floor. Ornately decorated with large leather arm chairs, layered chandeliers, tables covered with newspapers, and a number of fancy, yet-to-be removed, stand-up ash trays, the Speaker's Lobby is reminiscent of a men's club lounge. The Speaker's Lobby sports a fantastic view of our nation's Capitol, facing west towards the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.
When stepping in the room, you can feel the history and imagine the deals, conversations, and arguments members have had over a smoke for over 100 years. Only members, staff, pages, and reporters are allowed in the room. Men must be in coat and tie while women are prohibited to wear jeans or show body parts (apparently the "body part" rule started when a member of the press walked into the room wearing a shirt that exposed her belly button.)
Specific House rules of protocol, for example the fact that members' spouses are not allowed on the House floor, are not necessarily written down in some formal rules book. Smoking in the Speaker's Lobby falls into that category. It is just one of those things that no one questioned or attempted to change since it originated in this branch of government.
One of the House's most notable smokers, Minority Leader John Boehner, had few words on the topic. When asked repeatedly at a press conference this morning about the newly instituted rules, Boehner demurred, "That's fine."
Perhaps Boehner is at ease with the new restrictions because the Republican Leader will still be allowed to smoke within the confines of his Congressional office, as well as the outside balcony, just off the Speaker's Lobby. Not to mention, Senate smokers have lived under a no-smoking policy for years. In his two years in the Senate, admitted Senate smoker Barack Obama, despite attempts to quit, has managed - among others - to work around the indoor smoking ban.