- The Washington Times - Monday, July 24, 2006

It’s 4:30 on a Thursday afternoon, and the House of Representatives is hard at work making laws.

During a series of votes, members stroll in and out of the chamber to relax in the Speaker’s Lobby — an exclusive spot where they can put up their feet, crack jokes, read newspapers, make phone calls and, yes, smoke cigarettes, cigars and pipes.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from California — where smoking bans have long been in place — recently glared across the lobby at a colleague who was cloaked in a plume of cigar smoke.

“There’s a story for you,” she told a reporter for The Washington Times. “That’s not allowed in here anymore.”

Actually, it is perfectly legal for members to light up in the Speaker’s Lobby, an unventilated room adjoining the House chamber on the second floor of the Capitol.

The room’s rules are set by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican who does not smoke.

“Members are required to be here for long hours and oftentimes need to be near the floor for votes and other legislative business,” said Hastert spokeswoman Lisa C. Miller. “To provide them a small designated area for smoking gives them the opportunity to be close by.”

Leaving the vast building for a puff outside the Capitol could take members 10 minutes, sometimes more than they can spare.

“As long as people have smoked, there’s been smoking in the Capitol,” said former House historian Ray Smock, noting that vendors once sold tobacco inside the building.

Some members are confused that a new citywide ban on smoking inside the workplace does not apply to some halls or rooms inside the more than 200-year-old Capitol, one of the few places where the term “members only” is still relevant and where smoke-filled backrooms are no myth.

It’s been four weeks since the House Office Building Commission changed its indoor smoking policy, banning the practice in House parking garages, hallways, elevators, bathrooms and “any other areas of the buildings generally accessible to the public.”

It also banned smoking within 25 feet of the public entrances to the Capitol and its adjoining House office buildings.

Certain rooms controlled by leaders or committees are exempt from the policy and are allowed to set their own rules, which is one reason why cigar smoke often wafts from under the door of the third-floor office of Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, California Republican.

Reps. Martin T. Meehan of Massachusetts and Henry A. Waxman of California, both Democrats, sent a letter to Mr. Hastert in June, urging him to prohibit smoking in all House buildings and chastising him for not observing the D.C. ban.

“Instead, the House will continue to expose staff and visitors to secondhand smoke, a known human carcinogen,” they wrote.

Many lawmakers and Hill staffers have countered that the Speaker’s Lobby is a lounge for an exclusive club — members and their staffs, reporters and Capitol Police. Teenage pages assisting members also pass through the lobby on an average day, but cameras and members of the general public are not allowed inside.

“This is their private time to relax and unwind,” one lobby staffer said.

Perhaps it has something to do with the man to whom some people jokingly refer as the “smoker in chief” — Majority Leader John A. Boehner.

The chain-smoking Ohio Republican enjoys his Kentucky-brand Barclay cigarettes and is known to make legislative deals while puffing on his favorite bench in the lobby.

Either way, some are coughing and complaining.

Seventeen Democrats have signed the Meehan-Waxman letter, which notes the thousands of deaths caused by secondhand smoke and the risk of asthma.

“I certainly wouldn’t bring my grandchildren in there,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said about the room.

One House aide said smoking in the lobby is more about old-school, stubborn legislators following tradition and predicted that smokers eventually will migrate to the outdoor balcony attached to the lobby.

There is no equivalent to the Speaker’s Lobby on the Senate side, which banned smoking in the chamber in 1914 and in closed areas in 1998.

“We still hear rumors of people smoking in hideaway offices,” said assistant Senate historian Betty Koed.

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