The best way to see The Capitol is by contacting your representative and arranging for a tour conducted by one of his/her aides. This way, you will avoid the extremely long lines the "general visitor" must tolerate. With summer's sometime-sweltering temperatures, this can really save some frazzled nerves. I contacted our rep several months ahead to set up our tour, but you may be able to do with only a few weeks notice with your rep. A small bonus was that after meeting our representative at his office, his aide lead us to the Capitol via the extensive underground tunnels that connect the Capitol, House of Representatives office buildings, and Senate office buildings. Our wait time for the security check with a guide was significantly shorter than the general visitor, and we waited in air-conditioned comfort. Be warned, The Capitol can be nearly cheek to jowl with visitors depending on the time of day.
You will see the "crypt" where the Supreme Court used to meet before they got their own building, the Rotunda, the Hall of Statues (check out the freak Father Daminen statue from Hawaii), and the so-called "whispering gallery." The whispering gallery is an anomaly where one person whispering toward the floor on one side of the room can be heard distinctly clear on the other side from a certain point, despite the overall noise. The reason is above your head, as the domed archway picks up sound, transfers it, and magnifies it. Pretty cool. The rotunda is a marvel, well known to anyone who saw Regan’s funeral last year (he lay in State here) or has seen photos of JFK lying in State also. Ask your guide about the catafalque used to raise Reagan's coffin. It is the same one used for JFK and other state funerals, starting with Lincoln. The catafalque is stored in The Capitol "crypt" but is not on display.
At this point, our guided tour ended and we were free to join yet another security line if we wanted to see the "action" on the floor of the House. Do it. You can stay as long as you like and will see details, like the Eagle decoration on the ceiling, that are never shown during a presidential address to a Joint Session of Congress.
If you want to see the Senate in action, be sure to request a pass (different from your House pass) from your rep PRIOR to the start of your tour. We failed to do this, and if we had wanted to pursue seeing the Senate, we would have had to go back to our rep's office, get a Senate pass, and go through every level of security yet again.
Please note that there is extensive construction on the east side of The Capitol. A new underground visitor center is being built but will not be ready till sometime in 2006. As a consequence, there are many construction barriers that can change around over time and photos of the east side during this phase will show an ugly view. True to form, the initial cost was projected at $75 million, but has skyrocketed to $550!!! Seeing The Capitol took much longer than we anticipated due to the crowds and security checks. Allow about 2 1/2 hours. If hunger pangs strike, a decent cafeteria and fair prices is available in the bowels of the rep's office buildings. As tourists, we were in the minority for the lunch crowd, as it was mostly Congressional aids and the like, but it made for interesting eavesdropping!