Responding to Members’ concerns about communications with their families in the event of an emergency, the House Administration Committee has set up a toll-free phone number for spouses to call if such a situation occurs on the Capitol campus.
“We think it’s so vitally important that we keep spouses in the loop,” House Administration ranking member John Larson (D-Conn.) told about 170 spouses who participated in a late-March conference call.
The telephone meeting was a response to disquietude expressed by Members and their spouses about the potentially difficult situation that could arise if circumstances forced Members to be away from their families in a time of crisis. It came after Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) held a similar conference call with Senate spouses, Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer, Attending Physician John Eisold and other Senate officials.
“We care about what happens, obviously, with our entire family here on Capitol Hill,” said House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio). “We want to hear your input, and we want to be there for you 24 hours a day.
Chief Administrative Officer Jay Eagen told House spouses that the new information line, which is already operational, could also used to facilitate a conference call with all House spouses.
“This line will be dedicated for a conduit for you to be able to call if there is an emergency facing the House and you are seeking information,” Eagen told the spouses. He added, however, that it was just as important for Members’ families to provide contact information to House officials. So far only about one-fourth of House spouses have completed the relevant forms, which are available in the Members and Families Room.
In trying to assure spouses, Eisold explained that planning for a potential terrorist attack isn’t much different from preparing for a natural disaster or “any event that might somehow impair your ability to function as you normally would with food, water and lights and that sort of thing.”
“I think it’s human nature for everybody to worry about the worst-case scenario when they are thinking about weapons of mass destruction and biological, chemical and radiological events, whereas in reality, the risk just falls off dramatically as you get off the Capitol grounds, even if you live on Capitol Hill,” Eisold said to the group.
Members’ spouses have also been given a “self-care” tip sheet about how to deal with elevated anxiety from the Office of Employee Assistance and an emergency preparedness guide for families put together by the Capitol Police.
The conference calls held by both chambers last month highlight the profound anxiety lawmakers have about the safety of their families. But while Congressional officials have made considerable efforts to reach out to spouses and are committed to providing them with information in the event of an emergency, there’s a limit on what they can do. Security resources are statutorily obligated to specifically protect the Capitol complex and its occupants, a point the police chief delicately made during the Senate conference call.
“The 1,500 men and women of the Capitol Police are really here to serve the Members and the visitors and the staffs of this complex,” Gainer told the spouses.
But in the same breath he tried to assure them of the level of security and his department’s handle on the threat.
“We are in daily contact with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the CIA. We do a lot of intelligence analysis work with them, so we have a very good feel for what the threat level is. The very good news there is no specific threats to the Capitol Hill complex,” he added.