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Opinion: In Praise of Congressional Openness

Why the tension at the core of American democracy is worth it

An FBI evidence response team gathers outside of the Aldi grocery store near Eugene Simpson Stadium Park in Alexandria, Va., where House Majority Whip Steve Scalise was shot during baseball practice on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
An FBI evidence response team gathers outside of the Aldi grocery store near Eugene Simpson Stadium Park in Alexandria, Va., where House Majority Whip Steve Scalise was shot during baseball practice on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

In the tear-stained hours after the baseball field shootings, House Chaplain Patrick J. Conroy sounded the right note as he said in his opening prayer, “We are blessed by a free and open society. … But once again, we are reminded there is a vulnerability that comes with that openness.”

That is the tension at the core of American democracy as we stumble through this terror-soaked century. How do we maintain the close connection between the government and the governed without elected officials having to don bulletproof vests every morning along with their American flag pins?

Fear has stalked Congress before. The incident that bears the closest resemblance to the tragic attack in Alexandria, Virginia, occurred 63 years ago when Puerto Rican terrorists opened fire from the House gallery.

Five congressmen were wounded in the 1954 assault, two of them seriously. As The New York Times put it in their morning-after story, “The House members — at least 243 of them were in the chamber at the time — were set up like sitting ducks for their assailants. The Puerto Ricans literally sprayed the House floor with their fire.”

But still it wasn’t until the 1976 bicentennial — five years after the Weathermen had exploded a bomb in a bathroom near the Senate chamber — that metal detectors first came to the Capitol.

Even then, security was limited to the House and Senate galleries. Only in 1984, after another bomb exploded with no casualties, were the now familiar metal detectors installed at the entrances to the Capitol and the congressional office buildings.

At the time, House Minority Leader Robert Michel said, “It’s a sad day for the American government when any constituent has to go through a security guard to see a congressman.”

Those words are as true today as they were during the Reagan years. And it is to the lasting credit of Congress that the marble halls of the Capitol Hill office buildings still resemble a pageant of democracy filled with visiting realtors, Western ranchers with bolo ties, Orthodox rabbis and rambunctious fifth graders from Pennsylvania.

I still recall visiting the Knesset in Jerusalem at the height of the intifada and walking down empty echoing corridors devoid of visitors and voters. Such are the costs when legitimate security fears overwhelm the openness of democracy.

Republican legislators and aides who were on that blood-stained ballfield in Alexandria cannot help but be haunted by what they saw and felt on that fateful Wednesday morning. Few of us on the sidelines of journalism can fully comprehend the life-and-death fears that now accompany being elected to public office.

Yet the fervent hope is that Congress will never abandon the openness that now distinguishes the legislative branch from the rest of the federal government. A few decades ago, minor Cabinet officers had minimal security unless there was a distinct threat. Now they all travel in a tighter bubble than many European prime ministers.

Instinct suggests that being swaddled in security exaggerates a public official’s sense of self-importance. As a chronicler of John Edwards both before and after his stint as the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee, I share the belief of former staffers that the experience of being surrounded by Secret Service changed him. And not for the better.

It is dispiriting that the venerable tradition of congressional town meetings was already in peril even before the shootings. First, Democrats were shouted down by tea party militants in 2010. Now Republican legislators are retreating from their constituents in the face of angry left-wing protests.

The importance of the issues does not justify the breakdown in civility. During the run-up to the Iraq War vote in 2002, Rep. Chris Shays, a moderate Connecticut Republican, held a town meeting in a high school auditorium in Norwalk that lingers in memory for the passion and the politeness of the debate on both sides.

I wish I could offer a formula for lifting the tone of American political discourse — or improving a toxic style of online rhetoric where accusations of treason are almost as common as cute-kitten videos.

Though I am tempted to suggest which national elected official might set a better example with his itchy Twitter finger. But the problem is larger than even this unnamed public official’s ego.

At a Thursday news conference, Nancy Pelosi expressed her support for more funding for the Capitol Police to protect vulnerable legislators. As Pelosi put it, “It didn’t used to be this way. I really am almost sad for myself that I have gone down this path with you.”

While some steps are obviously prudent, we become a different country if every backbench legislator is accompanied by a security detail on trips to the grocery story or the Little League field. Maintaining a sense of psychological balance is difficult enough for House members now as they hurtle between Washington and their home districts.

Already, most American billionaires live in a world where they do not have to encounter mere mortals, except as retainers and servants. It would be a tragedy if Congress became another barbed-wire branch of government.

Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro

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