Legislative Bell System – Washington, D.C. - Atlas Obscura
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Washington, D.C.

Legislative Bell System

An ear-piercing buzzer calls lawmakers to a vote with a series of long and short rings to form coded messages. 

There’s an elaborate old system of buzzers and lights in the U.S. Capitol Building that blast out coded messages to busy lawmakers. The legislative bell system uses different combinations of long and short rings to send out updates on quorum calls, floor votes, and civil defense warnings. 

Back in the old days, the legislative bell system consisted of a parliamentarian who was actually sent down the halls with a bell in hand to make a ruckus and signal votes. The first incarnation of the electric call system was installed in the Capitol Building in the 1890s, and although there were no longer any bells involved, the name stuck around.

The legislative codes can be perplexing even for veteran lawmakers. Here’s how Rep. Mo Udall advised new members in 1977 about the bell: 

“Be prepared for total confusion and some panic when the bells start to ring. (Actually you’ll hear a buzz—’ringing’ is a quaint anachronism.) Here’s an example of the bells’ complex messages. Two bells followed by six rings means that there is a first vote on a measure being considered under suspension of the rules. Got that?”

Some members of Congress carry little cards in their wallets to remind them which code means what, but others rely on staffers to text them the decoded messages. Tourists and interns typically endure the ear-piercing buzzer calls in bewilderment as lawmakers gallop past them on the way to a vote.

The legislative bells remain an ever-present fixture on in the Capitol complex, and legend has it that area restaurants traditionally also “signaled a vote to congressional diners by ringing bells or buzzers.” The call system today is a mishmash of countless designs from over the years, but there are two models that pop up with the most frequency.

The first looks like your typical elementary school fare, with the addition of six lights on the face and a shrill alarm inside the body. The second is an unusual-looking art deco fixture that could be mistaken for an elevator indicator. The clocks were installed in 1963 and replaced many of the historic timekeeping systems throughout the Capitol complex. The brass art deco buzzer design dates to 1965 and is a fixture of the vast Rayburn House Office Building.

There have been well-reasoned proposals to replace the archaic bell system with a dedicated phone line or a smart phone app, but neither of these took off. Congress has its own way of doing things.

Know Before You Go

The legislative bells are sent out from the House and Senate cloakrooms, which you can ask to walk by on the standard constituent tour. The clocks, bells and buzzers are unavoidable anywhere in the Capitol complex.