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Another Big Boost for Hill Security Spending

A year after baseball shooting, Capitol Police keeps growing and cyber-attack worries intensify

A member of the security detail for Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer prepares to let him out of an SUV at the Exxon gas station at Massachusetts Avenue and Second Street Northeast last month. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A member of the security detail for Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer prepares to let him out of an SUV at the Exxon gas station at Massachusetts Avenue and Second Street Northeast last month. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

At a time when steady significant growth for the Capitol Police looks sure to continue, members of Congress are confessing heightened concern they’ll never be altogether shielded from threats both old-fashioned and high tech — no matter where they are.

The Senate on Monday, and the House three weeks ago, passed bills allocating more than $450 million for the congressional force in the coming year. It would be at least a 6 percent hike and produce a Capitol Police budget one-third bigger than just five years before. No other part of Congress, nor any of its support organizations, has seen anything approaching such generous and sustained increases in recent years.

The bulk of the latest supplement would pay for hiring six-dozen additional cops and a score more civilian personnel, continuing plans to grow the force 20 percent in the final five years of this decade. But at more than 2,300 sworn officers now, the Capitol Police is already bigger than the departments in San Francisco or San Antonio and would rank 12th on the roster of the nation’s biggest municipal forces.

As with other such boosts in the recent past, this one is sailing toward reality with almost no commentary — and essentially no dissent — during debate on the annual Legislative Branch spending bill. For fiscal 2019, it’s part of a package of the three appropriations measures, universally viewed as the least controversial of the dozen annual money bills, assembled by Republican leaders in hope of creating summertime momentum for a budget process that nonetheless looks headed for shutdown drama this fall.

The ready acquiescence in the Capitol Police’s expansion, though, has hardly ended lawmakers’ anxiety about their own safety. On the contrary, there seem to be as many provisions addressing security in the Legislative Branch bills than ever before.

Protective bubble

Lawmakers are keenly aware that carnage at last year’s House Republican baseball practice shooting, by a gunman with a professed disdain for GOP lawmakers, could have been much worse but for the heroics of Capitol Police officers David Bailey and Crystal Griner. But they were only at the suburban Virginia diamond because they were in the leadership protection detail and assigned to guard team member Steve Scalise in his capacity as House majority whip.

ICYMI: Scalise Talks About His Recovery and Return to Baseball

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The Senate version of the Legislative Branch bill earmarks $1 million to boost protection of members when they’re off Capitol Hill but still in the Washington region, and it orders the Capitol Police to come up with a plan for expanding its protective bubble around members when they’re roaming in the D.C. area — including making regular threat assessments of charity dinners and other events that might merit a large congressional turnout.

The police’s current mission is confined to protecting Capitol Hill, its workforce of about 25,000 and lawmakers whenever they feel threatened back home or on official travel.

“Evolving threats to Congress include the physical targeting of members of Congress,” Senate appropriators said in their report accompanying the bill. “In addition to securing the Capitol complex, the committee finds that ensuring the continuity of government must include protecting the physical security of members.”

With that in mind, House appropriators ordered the study of whether it’s safe to permit the Capitol Police to increase its standard retirement age to 60 from 57, while senators ordered a different study of whether it’s past time to boost the officers’ mandatory physical fitness regimen.

There’s also a provision to introduce training for members and staffers in basic techniques for stanching the bleeding of their colleagues if there’s a mass casualty attack on the Hill.

On both sides of the Capitol, the lawmakers made plain how they are continuing to struggle with one of the longest-enduring challenges of any legislative body — how to balance their safety against the political mandate (and the personal desire of many) to be readily accessible to their constituents.

Both bills would allocate $13 million to modernize the network of fencing, concrete barriers and security kiosks that was quickly constructed to surround the Capitol complex in the months after the Sept. 11 attack, during which a hijacked airliner crashed in rural Pennsylvania while on course for downtown Washington.

The House is focused on bolstering the screening of cars and drivers using the garages underneath and adjacent to the three member office buildings. It is also preparing for $5 million in “security improvements” inside the House chamber — appropriators provided no more details — and $3 million for a new security screening center just south of the Capitol, because the current checkpoint is directly under the Speaker’s Lobby that’s adjacent to the House floor. (Plans are also being made for a more aesthetically appropriate structure to replace the rough-hewn security checkpoints outside the north door, on the Senate side.)

Pedestrians and motorists trying to muscle past Capitol security are an infrequent but persistent threat. Two years ago a Tennessee man professing to be “a prophet of God” was shot and wounded by police after drawing a spring-loaded BB gun at the Capitol Visitor Center’s main tourist entrance. (His act merited 11 months in federal prison.) Three years before, a Connecticut woman was shot to death after ramming her Infiniti coupe (with her 1-year-old daughter inside) into a barrier on Capitol Hill.

And 20 years ago this summer, Russell Eugene Weston Jr. circumvented the X-ray machine at a since-shuttered Capitol tourist entrance and shot J.J. Chestnut, the lone patrolman at the checkpoint, and then detective John Gibson in a nearby House leadership office. They are the only Capitol Police officers in history killed in the line of duty. Ruled mentally unfit for trial, Weston is living indefinitely at a federal prison hospital in North Carolina.

To the cloud

Lawmaker fears go beyond such traditional vulnerabilities and are increasingly focused on the cybersecurity threats of the 21st century.

House members say they are eager to get going on a plan to modernize the server farm, known as the Alternative Computing Facility, that was created more than a decade ago in the Virginia exurbs to provide a safe and comprehensive backup in case of an attack on the Hill that destroyed the oceans of sensitive data kept by senators, House members and their committees.

Senators, especially, expressed concern about the vulnerability of lawmakers and their workplaces to computer network hacking and cyberattacks. Their bill would give the sergeant-at-arms the power to hire an outside contractor who would seek to boost privacy protections on Hill networks in part by installing anti-spying software, audit every Senate office for high-tech vulnerabilities and report annually on the extent of the hacking on the Hill.

And they are pushing to come up with a plan by the end of this year for improving every senator’s own personal smartphone and laptop security, probably by allowing them to sign up for encryption services the Senate would install and support.

The two Appropriations Committee reports that accompany the spending bill offer one of the very few windows into the workings of the Capitol Police and other security offices on the Hill, which are otherwise effectively permitted by lawmakers to maintain an extraordinary low profile and disclose next to nothing about their operations, investigations and apprehensions.

That’s more than a consequence of a budget process about which the public receives minimal information. It also stems from Congress’ decision to exempt the Capitol Police from the standards of openness that apply at every other law enforcement agency in the country.

But, especially since the deaths of Chestnut and Gibson two decades ago, there’s been a single politically salable, if paradoxical, rationale for the secrecy: It’s the best way to keep the legislative branch safe so its deliberations can be as transparent as they are.

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