For more than a year and a half, virtually no amount of security on the Hill was deemed excessive.
Police worked double shifts, the National Guard was called in, more cops were hired, barricades were erected, streets were closed and hundreds of millions of dollars were spent to keep the Capitol and its inhabitants safe.
But there has been a palpable shift on the Hill regarding security. Members are beginning to question how much is too much and whether they’ve created a fortress on the grounds of the Capitol of the free world.
At a contentious hearing last week on the Capitol Police, Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), ranking member on the Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch, denounced Chief Terrance Gainer for seeking “to create his own army” and lamented that the building is no longer inviting.
Although they don’t share his vitriol, many Members said during another hearing the following day and afterwards that Moran’s sentiments generally mirror their own.
“I just think it should be a little more open to mom and pop from Peoria,” Chairman Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) said.
In his testimony, Architect Alan Hantman, a member of the Capitol Police Board, called the balancing of openness with security a “tremendous challenge.”
The tension inherent in striking that balance has been present since the dramatic increase in security that began in the fall of 2001 and, to a lesser degree, even before.
But the questions are now surfacing in a more deliberate way. Although they have not been framed in such philosophical terms, Members are essentially asking: How much risk are we comfortable with? And given that the threat is impossible to quantify, is surrounding the Capitol with heavily armed guards worth the resulting sacrifices to “the people’s house?”
“I think you have to conduct security from a pragmatic standpoint,” House Administration ranking member John Larson (D-Conn.) said. “My own gut tells me that you cannot defend against a person who is not afraid to die. We’ve got to come to a reasonable center.”
Moran made similar comments at the first hearing. “Any terrorist can commit any terrorist act,” he said, implying that the Hill’s extensive attempts to guard against such acts border on futility.
“A lot of Members are concerned about the bedside manner of the police here. There’s got to be a better sense of engagement … of what it is actually that you’re securing,” he said.
Larson, however, separated criticism of the security procedures on the Hill from his high regard for the Capitol Police themselves — a distinction that wasn’t so clear at the hearing, especially from Moran.
“Members are no longer in charge here, but the people who elect us think we are. Having said that, it’s orange alert, it’s not time to say it,” Moran said. “I do think it comes down to a matter of judgement. These are not things you plug into a computer and get a scientific judgement.”
House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) was adamant, however, that Congress itself has set the tone for security and the Capitol Police have never acted unilaterally, as Kingston and Moran alleged.
“It’s to the point with Chief Gainer and [House Sergeant-at-Arms] Bill Livingood that they might as well move into my house,” Ney said. “They come to us for the policy. We [the committee] probably spend 60 percent of our time on police only. I am talking countless hours on this stuff.”
Ney also pointed out that it was ironic that Moran would be complaining that Members are no longer in charge, when it was the Virginia Democrat who last year fought to give the police full disbursing authority, taking away the requirement for Members to sign off on hirings, firings and transfers. (Ney succeeded in removing the language on the floor.)
“I don’t know why Members of the House and Senate are obsessed with taking elected officials out of the process,” Ney said last summer. “When Members of the House and Senate start to complain, ‘Why was this done?’ We’re going to have no input.”
Overall, Ney thinks Congress has “maintained a darned good balance.” That approach, he said, has come from Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who “wants us to have security, but he wants the place to be open.”
He also lamented how Moran’s treatment of the chief riled many on the force. Word rippled through the ranks almost immediately after Gainer appeared in front of the subcommittee Tuesday, and many officers expressed outrage.
“It doesn’t make us feel like [Moran] backs what we are trying to do up there,” said K-9 officer Ron Potter, who also serves as the first vice chairman of the union’s labor committee.
“I was shocked when police officers told me about it,” Ney said. “The rank and file were furious.”
Although he mentioned his “good communication” with Kingston, who just took over the subcommittee this year, Ney said that if Appropriations was concerned about security policy, “they can pick up the phone. A lot of these are authorizing issues.”
The perpetual tension between authorizers and appropriators aside, Larson said he hopes to foster informal discussions among Members to talk about Congress’ security needs. Lawmakers, he said, need to hear “their own concerns out loud.”
“There is a division among the Membership. I think it’s important that Members participate in this,” Larson said. “It’s calmed down, but the issues haven’t gone away and neither have the philosophical questions.”
For his part, Gainer said such discussions are “entirely appropriate.”
“Every uniformed person works for a civilian,” he said.
Since he took over a year ago, Gainer has said that if security decisions were made in a vacuum, Congress would erect a fence around the Hill and turn away tourists. “But I wouldn’t support that. I don’t support a notion that you put brick walls around this place … but I do think there needs to be measured policing.”
As for the staffing increases and additional funds he presented to a skeptical legislative branch subcommittee, Gainer said he never expected such appropriations to be “automatic.” Many police chiefs, he said, have wondered aloud how long Congress and local city councils would continue to fund increased domestic security.
“We all knew at some point they would turn the spigot off, because frankly we’re all taxpayers, and we just can’t afford to give everybody 125 percent,” Gainer said.
Gainer also recognizes that a certain amount of vigilance is natural after tragedies, and “every day you’re further from 9/11, from the day [officers John] Gibson and [Jacob] Chestnut were murdered, from the anthrax attacks” that sense of impending threat is lessened.
The chief’s prediction was borne out last week. Even as the nation’s threat level was raised from yellow to orange, Members were debating if the Hill had become too secure.
One of the legislative branch subcommittee’s biggest gripes was the closing of the Capitol Dome for tours, which even prior to Sept. 11, 2001, was accessible only with a Member present.
“What is different now than five years ago?” Kingston asked.
Hantman replied that the Capitol Police have concerns about chemical or biological attacks.
“Where’s the science or the factual recommendation for that?” Kingston shot back. “I intend to put a rider on the bill to reopen the Dome,” he added, calling it “one more example of Washington police-state arrogance. This building doesn’t belong to us. It doesn’t belong to the police, it belongs to the constituents.”
The other panel members present lamented that the “best view in Washington” had been taken away without justification or employing creative ways, such as background checks, to keep it open.
“I didn’t do it every day, but I did it enough to know that it is a unique experience,” Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) said.
Gainer was not present for the Dome discussion, as the hearing focused on the Architect, but he expressed hope that the subcommittee wouldn’t legislate security procedures, because it makes them much more difficult to undo, if necessary.
Gainer also defended the force’s overall approach. “I don’t think we have gotten Stalinist about how we are tying to run this,” he said in an interview.
In his testimony to the panel, long before the hearing became heated, Gainer reminded the Members that a hijacked plane was nearly flown into the Capitol.
“The terrorists were not successful that particular day,” Gainer said. “There remains a constant underlying threat, and that reality is ever changing.”