March 20, 2012— -- Congress really may be going to the dogs.
Every day dozens of dogs, the canine companions of members of Congress, are brought to the United States Capitol building to spend days alongside their masters.
The dogs have the ultimate inside look at politics on the Hill; they are let into secret meetings and to committee hearings, and they're allowed to roam around in the workplace some of the nation's most powerful people.
Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., brings his two dogs, "Tink" and "Monique," to Capitol Hill often.
"One time one of my dogs escaped and the chairman of my committee found the dog drinking out of his toilet, so he was walking down the hallway saying 'who's dog is this, who's dog is this.?'" Sensenbrenner laughed, recalling the episode. "I picked him up and said 'Mr. Chairman this is my dog and he loves you just as much as he loves me'."
Perhaps the most famous dog on Capitol Hill is a bichon frise named "Dakota," the faithful companion of Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad, who represents North Dakota.
"We've even gotten to the point when senators, when I'm going to meetings, call up and ask if I can bring Dakota along with me," Conrad said. "So he has become a celebrity up here."
Back in Conrad's office, Dakota tends to take over the place.
Conrad's office is filled with dog bowls, doggie beds, and pictures of Dakota. A pale yellow formal arm chair originally intended for guests has turned into Dakota's bed, where she likes to recline while her owner works nearby.
There's even a framed photograph of Bo Obama, the first family's dog, addressed to "Dakota,'' and signed with a paw print drawn by President Obama himself.
"It does change the atmosphere in the office, it's clearly good for morale," Conrad says, "you can just tell it kind of warms up in the office, as I say, it kind of humanizes things."
Congressman Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., walks his dog Bruin from his home to his nearby Capitol Hill office every morning.
"When he arrives he kind of takes over the place. Wanders from room to room, says 'hello' to his friends," Lewis says. "Often (he) lies out in the couch in the living, in the front office."
Lewis' dog's fluffy toys are scattered all around the Congressman's office and he has a bed in two of rooms, including one underneath the senator's desk.
The congressman says when constituents or other members of Congress come in and see his dog in the office it indicates a "very human side" to what is otherwise a very serious business.
"No doubt that an animal like this tends to calm people," he said. "The real world is that we deal with intense challenges all the time but it's awfully important to keep somewhat in perspective."
"Whenever I am frustrated about how to figure out what are the questions to be asked," said Lewis, "well, I just look at Bruin and he says 'take it easy dad, no big problem'."
Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., is regularly seen walking his two small dogs, "Snuggles" and "Koda," around the Capitol Building and his Dirksen Senate office. He says Koda has been able to ease the tension in meetings on Capitol Hill.
"There have been times when people have a very serious issue and they are ready to rip my head off, and I walk in, you know, with Koda, and they say 'oh we can't yell at him because Koda will get mad'," Brown says.
Bringing dogs to work on Capitol Hill is a tradition that dates all the way back to the 19th Century, when members of Congress would bring their hunting dogs to work with them on the Hill, according to Senate Historian Donald Ritchie.
In 1811, Virginia Congressman John Randolph's dogs were ordered to be removed from the floor of the House of Representatives by the house speaker, as other members found his dogs too intimidating. From then on, dogs were banned from the floors of the House and Senate, and were later barred from the cafeterias on the Hill.
Ritchie says that over the years members of Congress who keep their pooches nearby while at work have included former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kans., the late Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.V., and Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. On the Hill, Ritchie said, their dogs were as well known as they were.
"We've seen more and more of them over the years," Ritchie said, explaining that bringing dogs to the Hill was popularized in the 1970's. "It's become much more common place these days."
It's a funny tradition for a serious place. But members say just the presence of these dogs does a lot to lighten the negative, often divisive mood on the Hill.
"This place is so intense to have somebody that's just affectionate," Conrad says of his dog, "he's happy, he's not affected by the latest controversy over the budget or the cuts were making someplace. He's happy every day."
Members of Congress say they take themselves too seriously to begin with, so bringing a dog to work not only humanizes them to the outside world, but it also humbles them.
It isn't the job of an intern or staffer to clean up the inevitable accidents around the office.
"I am often seen picking up poop," Brown said, "I'll hear them whisper 'that's Senator Brown, I can't believe he's picking up his dogs' poop.' Really? Who else is going to do it?"