WASHINGTON — Welcome to the Republican floor show in the House of Representatives, where the microphones don't work, the C-SPAN cameras are dark and the dim lighting recalls the days of gas lamps and spittoons.
A persistent troupe of Republican lawmakers doesn't seem to mind, nor are the legislators deterred by the fact that the oil industry estimates that opening America's coastal waters to drilling is unlikely to provide more oil for at least seven to 10 years.
The Republicans' not-ready-for-prime-time effort to embarrass the Democrats into debating offshore drilling might be having an impact, even though Congress has skipped town for its August recess.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the target of their jibes, recently said that she was open to energy legislation that permits some drilling. Earlier this month, Pelosi shut down the House of Representatives before angry Republicans had a chance to debate the issue, and she opposes repealing the ban on offshore drilling.
Sen. Barack Obama hadn't been a fan of offshore drilling, either. But the Democratic nominee-in-waiting recently said he could support it if it were limited and part of a broader energy package.
Obama's opponent, Republican Sen. John McCain, was against offshore drilling before he was for it. Conservatives who oppose a Senate bipartisan compromise on drilling are on his case, however, because he hasn't ruled out the measure.
All these conversions aren't due entirely to the Republicans' stunt. Polls show that the public is angry over high gasoline prices and increasingly supports offshore drilling.
But strange things can happen in Washington in August. It's the month when President Nixon resigned, Monica Lewinsky talked to a grand jury and the British torched the Capitol and the White House back in 1814.
Lawmakers flee in August to campaign back home, vacation or travel on the taxpayers' dime. When they leave, so does much of the city's political class. The trendiest restaurants have tables to spare.
In a city emptied of heavyweights, the House sit-in is the only game in town.
"Political theater," said tourist Tom Coleman of Tacoma, Wash., who was visiting the Capitol this week with his brother and 87-year-old father.
Still, the Republicans might be doing the honorable thing. After all, House members will earn nearly $170,000 this year, and so far they've worked just 96 days.
The Congressional Record will take no notice, however, and that's too bad. One minute the Republicans will be talking about the failure of socialism; the next, the lingering effects of too many corn dogs.
"You can't believe how many I've had to eat," Republican Rep. John Kline of Minnesota lamented last week. Too many county fairs, he said, and the tourists chuckled.
It can get so folksy that you half expect to find a spread of fried chicken and three-bean salad laid out on red checkered tablecloths in nearby Statuary Hall.
The lawmakers also are trying hard to punch up the drama.
When Republican Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana exclaimed, with the conviction of a World War II French Resistance fighter, "I just returned from the farm fields of Indiana, and I can say the American people are with us," you got a sudden urge for a bag of popcorn and a $5 Coke.
The crowds aren't exactly standing room only, either. You have to impeach somebody to draw that kind of interest. But think of a town hall meeting, political free-fire zone and pep rally rolled into one. When a congressman extolled the virtues of "American energy," the audience cheered. That kind of behavior usually would trigger a quick gavel.
"Strange," deputy House historian Fred Beuttler mused. "We've never seen this before."
These are not normal times. The visitors have been invited to sit on the House floor, for example, on the very leather-upholstered benches that the lawmakers themselves usually occupy.
Indeed, to see the "people's House" filled with real people in flip-flops, shorts and baseball caps, is kind of a jolt. But reaffirming.
Some look bored. But members of Congress often do, too.
Others gaze around the 150-year-old chamber, drinking in the trappings of history.
"Compared to the Reichstag in Germany, it's huge," Mathias Kiehn of Hamburg said, referring to his country's parliament.
The Republicans say their motivations aren't partisan.
"This is not about Republicans vs. Democrats," said Republican Rep. Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia.
Too bad he didn't stop there. Unable to repress his inner partisan, Westmoreland continued, "This is about Nancy Pelosi vs. the people of the United States. She's elected by the San Francisco mentality."
Emerging from the chamber with her family, 12-year-old Julia Medina of New York said that most of what the lawmakers talked about went over her head.
"But I thought it was cool to be where somebody in the government sat," she said.