A new space opened this month on Capitol Hill, just across the street from the Senate and with a rare purpose in our fractious political times.
The Quaker Welcome Center, housed in a three-story rowhouse at 245 Second Street NE, is owned and operated by the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a nonpartisan Quaker lobbying group and the oldest registered religious lobby in Washington. The downstairs meeting room is designed for bipartisan discussions between members of Congress as well as the general public.
The center also will host weekly grass-roots lobbying training sessions, open to everyone including families, school groups, Quaker meetings and other faith-based institutions. There will be weekly interfaith "silent reflection" sessions, in the style of the Quaker tradition of silent worship.
Sitting on the couch in the airy, light-filled parlor of the center on a recent morning, Diane Randall, the committee's executive secretary, said that in her recent travels around the country she has encountered people from across the political spectrum who are heartbroken by the current political rancor. The center, she hopes, will help stem the vitriol by fostering respectful conversation and a search for common ground.
"It's tremendously exciting, and we're imagining all the possibilities of having a more intimate setting for dialogue," Randall said. She hopes to see people come together to discuss issues on which they may not agree and work constructively on them.
"In some sense, I feel like we model good relationship behavior," she added.
The Quaker lobbying arm tackles subjects such as economic justice, criminal justice, immigrants and refugees, energy and the environment.
In particular, the committee has worked to strengthen and increase the number of members in the bipartisan House Climate Solutions Caucus, which was created in February 2016 by Reps. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) and Ted Deutch (D-Fla.). Since then, the caucus has grown to 62 members — 31 from each side of the aisle — earning the caucus the nickname of "Noah's Ark" because members have to join with another member from the other political party.
Emily Wirzba, a legislative representative for the FCNL focusing on sustainable energy and the environment, said that key to the group's approach is finding ways to make the issue less politically toxic. The new center reflects the group's commitment to fostering bipartisan legislative solutions.
"We see this . . . as one of the most hopeful spaces right now," Wirzba said of the center.
The rowhouse was owned by a woman who had volunteered with the FCNL. After she died, her estate sold the property to the lobbying group in 2011. Renovations began two years ago. The first floor has the meeting space and the top two floors have four one-bedroom apartments. One apartment is occupied and another is reserved for the committee's advocacy residency program. The remaining two apartments will be rented at market rate.
In the spirit of the group's mission of seeking "an Earth restored," the building is designed to be carbon neutral and has features such as solar panels, a "green" roof that reduces stormwater runoff, "smart" utility meters and energy-efficient lighting and windows. It generates about 65 percent of the energy it uses, and the goal is to eventually bring that up to 100 percent, Randall said.
The center recently marked its opening by holding its first public event, hosting Reps. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.) and Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.), both of whom are members of the climate caucus, in a conversation about climate change and the environment. Costello and Eshoo discussed the importance of the bipartisan caucus and the ways in which it can advance climate-related legislation.
"I hope that the caucus can be a safe place for people," said Eshoo, "a political suit of armor" against attacks that threaten to derail their work.
Costello added that it was essential to have forums such as the caucus where lawmakers can get along, and to show the public that Congress is not a place of acrimonious dysfunction.
At the end of the event, Randall closed the conversation by thanking Costello and Eshoo for being exemplary listeners.
Costello turned to Randall and scrunched his face a little.
"What did you say?" he deadpanned.