Day of Indecision Doesn’t Bode Well for Decisions to Come

Posted September 17, 2013 at 6:13pm

As Capitol Hill returned to its usual levels of edginess and partisanship Tuesday, there was general thankfulness that the boots on the ground — the men and women of the Capitol Police — had provided the requisite competence and comprehensive calm during the mayhem down the street at the Navy Yard.

Everybody else who sought to put the congressional community at ease? Not so much.

The rhetorical questions with the sharpest edge that took hold most quickly on Monday afternoon were still being bandied about more than 24 hours later:

  • If the people in charge in the House and Senate can’t even agree how to handle the fading possibility of a gunman on the loose in the neighborhood, why should we expect they’ll speak with one voice when there’s an obvious and imminent threat?  
  • And if the law enforcement professionals can’t cut a quick, bicameral deal on a straightforward matter of security, is there any hope Republican and Democratic politicians will ever find agreement on a matter of policy consequence — on, say, flaws in the security clearance system and how to limit gun violence?

The “Has it really come to this?” tone of exasperation came from the unprecedented split reaction to the Navy Yard incident from the three senior legislative branch administrators who are supposed to coordinate security as the Capitol Police Board.

With the House in recess for the day, its sergeant-at-arms for the past year, Paul Irving, decided that staff on his side of the Capitol complex should be allowed to go about their business without distraction while the search for as many as two potential shooters remained open. That’s even though the Cannon Building is merely a 20-minute walk from Building 197 at the Navy Yard, where a dozen people had been shot dead.

Architect of the Capitol Stephen T. Ayers, whose sprawling jurisdiction includes the Capitol Visitor Center, also adopted a nothing-untoward-to-see-here approach, which allowed hundreds of tourists to keep watching the orientation films and staring at the statues until normal closing time.

Terrance Gainer, who was deputy Metropolitan Police chief and Capitol Police chief before becoming Senate sergeant-at-arms seven years ago, took the opposite and more assertive course. He ordered a full shelter-in-place at least four hours after the gunfire stopped, just as some lockdowns closest to the crime scene were ending. That’s even though no doorway on the Senate side of the Hill is closer than a mile and a half from where the shootings started.

But Gainer held, however belatedly, onto the coattails of Majority Leader Harry Reid, who opened the afternoon’s session by postponing a pair of judicial confirmation votes and telling senators to keep away for the rest of the day.

Gainer started relaxing his order after only an hour, but he didn’t sound the all-clear until after 10:30 p.m. In the intervening hours, the Capitol was in an evolving, multitiered security state: Senators but not their aides were permitted to leave work, House staff and lobbyists were not allowed to take meetings on the Senate side, out-of-towners with headsets were blocked from a glimpse of the Old Senate Chamber but were welcome to linger in Statuary Hall.

The Capitol wasn’t the only venue for sending mixed messages during the day. At least three other institutions that seek to project an aura of continuity and comfort at a time of national anxiety — the White House, the news media and big league baseball — all came under withering criticism for failing to do so.

President Barack Obama struggled anew with balancing his obligatory role as national consoler against his eagerness to frame the capital’s many impasses on his own terms. The president set aside the latter for at least a few days in deference to the former, with the experiences of the Boston Marathon bombings and the Connecticut schoolhouse massacre behind him.

Not this time, even though the tragedy was within walking distance of the Oval Office and its victims were within his legal chain of command. He went ahead with a scheduled lunch hour speech in the Executive Office Building to mark the fifth anniversary of the financial collapse of 2008.

After appending some modest remarks about the shooting to the top of his prepared text, Obama plunged ahead with the message he’d planned — a jeremiad against Republican intransigence on the budget that many viewed as discordant and inappropriate for the day.

Cable and broadcast networks, confronted with the opportunity to crush a national crime story in their own backyards, marred the air with a series of false reports: At least two aired the wrong name of the gunman. There were plenty of incorrect accounts about the former Navy reservist later identified, Aaron Alexis, not the least of which was that he used a stolen ID to get on base (in fact he used his contractor’s badge), and that he mowed people down with a semiautomatic rifle. (His one long gun was a shotgun.) And reports were filled with conflicting and contradictory numbers for how many shot, how many killed and how many suspects.

The president’s partisan assertiveness and the misinformation from the press were no more unsettling than the dithering by the Washington Nationals.

The team, which had made a next-door parking lot available for families to reunite with Navy Yard workers, waited until four hours before game time — after players had arrived for workouts, and many hours after the shooting stopped — before deciding to postpone the opening game of a big series against the Atlanta Braves.

That was indecision topped only by the Capitol Police Board.