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Gainer’s Capitol Fence Is Not a Popular Concept

Securing the perimeter of the Capitol's open campus is a challenge for Capitol Police. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Securing the perimeter of the Capitol's open campus is a challenge for Capitol Police. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The idea of building a security fence around the Capitol appears just as unpopular now as it was a decade ago, when then-Capitol Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer pitched the idea to Congress.  

In 2004, House appropriators added language to the legislative branch appropriations bill to prohibit Capitol Police from spending public dollars on the project. At the time, amendment sponsor Sam Farr, D-Calif., said a fence “really hurt the image and understanding of what a democracy is all about.”  

Gainer, who retired from his post as Senate sergeant-at-arms in the spring, is again talking about erecting a “tasteful fence” about a block around the Capitol that would allow people to get screened before entering the campus, but current law enforcement officials aren’t commenting and elected officials aren’t biting. In a briefing Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters he would defer to the Capitol Police for those kind of assessments. He talked about the difficulty of preserving the executive mansion as the “people’s house” where thousands of tourists visit on a daily basis, while safeguarding the first family.  

“There’s a similar dynamic in play at the United States Capitol,” Earnest said, “and I’m confident that the — that the U.S. Capitol Police is aware of that need and is doing everything that’s necessary to grapple with that challenge, but in terms of, you know, recommended changes, we’d obviously defer to them.”  

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., rejected the fence in a strongly worded statement late Thursday afternoon. She called Gainer’s comments to CQ Roll Call “desperate, distasteful, and disrespectful” to D.C. residents and Capitol visitors, and a slap in the face to Capitol Police.  

“Worse, closing the streets and enclosing the Capitol within a fence would send the message that a Congress that cannot keep itself safe without fencing itself in cannot keep the country safe,” Norton continued. “If security officials were actually suggesting gating the Congress from our constituents, they would signal that they have given up on state-of-the-art security and simply don’t know what to do.”  

The top law enforcement officials in each chamber, Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Drew Willison and House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul D. Irving, have declined to weigh in on the idea. Capitol Police did not have a response to the proposal on Thursday. The department does not usually comment on security protocol.  

Gainer said during an appearance on CSPAN’s “Washington Journal” that he understands people’s “reluctance” to the suggestion.  

“They like the openness of it,” he said. “They think its reminiscent of the original design of the Capitol, but again I think in this day and age, when we continue to be at war so long on those who are trying to do something to us — there’s a way to do that and do it tastefully.” He suggested shrubbery, fencing and colonnades “if done in a thoughtful way” would actually give greater access to the grounds of the Capitol.  


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