Hill staff say fear of political violence can feel like part of the job
Last week’s bomb standoff leaves aides asking, ‘What’s next?’
When a man threatened to blow up his truck near the Capitol last week, the standoff lasted five hours and ended in surrender. Now the episode has renewed debate over whether political violence has entered the mainstream — and how much fear should come with the territory when you work for Congress.
Some Hill staffers said they feel resigned to future threats. “It’s an unwelcome part of working in politics and D.C.,” said a Republican House staffer, who asked for anonymity to speak freely about their workplace.
“At this point, you get used to it,” said another GOP House staffer. “I’m not sure what else they could do to reinforce security, but ultimately, I do still feel very safe at the Capitol.”
Floyd Ray Roseberry was charged in federal court Friday with threatening to use a weapon of mass destruction and an explosive device. If convicted on the mass destruction charge, he could face life in prison.
During the standoff, the suspect appeared to stream live video from inside his truck as he spoke of a coming “revolution” and blamed Democrats for “killing America.” It was the latest chapter in a violent year on Capitol Hill, which began with an insurrection attempt by a pro-Trump mob on Jan. 6 and then saw a Capitol Police officer killed in April when a driver rammed his car through a barricade.
The stream of evacuation alerts can be exhausting, said one Democratic House staffer who was working from home Thursday.
“My poor parents. They frantically text me every time they hear about it on the news,” the staffer said. “There have been several of these incidents during my time on the Hill, and it’s always a reminder that we are a target.”
While this year has felt like a tipping point for the Capitol complex, with one harrowing event after another, longtime staffers can remember other periods of heightened fear, including the anthrax attacks of 2001 and the congressional baseball shooting of 2017.
For former Democratic aide Jim Manley, the anthrax memories are still vivid. What’s striking this time around is how quick some people have been to downplay the threats, he said.
“As a 21-year veteran of the Senate, who ran out of the Russell Building on 9/11, I find it a little shocking and unnerving that folks have become inured to the potential for violence,” said Manley, who is now a political consultant.
Aaron Fritschner summed up that frustration in a Twitter thread Friday. “It feels like some (many?) are looking at another potentially deadly threat to the Capitol Hill community and shrugging. Yesterday’s news I guess,” tweeted the spokesman for Virginia Democratic Rep. Donald S. Beyer Jr.
‘This should not be the way we live’
Congressional staffers from across the political spectrum told CQ Roll Call that they have come to expect some level of danger at work, and it can be hard to keep up with all the security alerts on campus.
“I didn’t even really realize it was happening until people started texting me to ask if I was OK,” said one Democratic staffer who was working from an unaffected office building on the Hill as the bomb threat unfolded Thursday. “Because sometimes you get a lot of alerts because of a suspicious package on the other side of the Capitol or a protest.”
No one deserves to have their workplace repeatedly terrorized, said Democratic Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon of Pennsylvania, who remembers hiding in her office alone on Jan. 6 texting with a friend on the phone. The friend shared advice she’d learned as a school teacher about how to barricade doors during an attack by an active shooter.
“I have never had to go through that before,” Scanlon said, though she said she knows younger staffers may have a different perspective. Many of them endured years of active-shooter drills just to make it to high school graduation. “This should not be the way we live in America,” she said.
The insurrection attempt at the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob has made Scanlon think about political violence “probably every day,” she said. “Until Jan. 6, I didn’t have an alarm system in my home. Before Jan. 6, I’ve never bought pepper spray or other weaponry. … I’m a civics geek. I’m a public servant.”
Scanlon is a member of the House Administration Committee, which oversees legislative branch agencies that support members of Congress, like the Capitol Police and the Architect of the Capitol. She hopes that as the panel continues to hold hearings in the wake of Jan. 6, it will be able to recommend policies to modernize policing and improve intelligence gathering and security around the Capitol.
After the anthrax attacks of 2001, which shuttered congressional office buildings for months and made fear a part of daily life, lawmakers enacted sweeping changes to Hill security, including the addition of the Capitol Visitor Center. Two decades later, some staffers said they want to see something similarly concrete come out of the events of 2021.
Lawmakers have made a start, approving a $2.1 billion spending bill that reimbursed the Capitol Police and National Guard budgets as they worked to secure the Capitol in the days after Jan. 6. The bill also included $300 million to the Architect of the Capitol for security improvements, such as upgrading windows and doors of the Capitol building and installing new cameras around the complex.
While it passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, some key Democrats said the package wasn’t enough. It won’t be able to “secure the Capitol for the long term,” said House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.
The AOC said in a statement last week that it is currently working on a “facility needs assessment,” where it will “identify necessary security upgrades to the facilities and infrastructure on Capitol Hill through coordination and collaboration with campus partners.”
“AOC is not a security entity,” the statement said. “We are focused on what and how identified campus needs can be addressed in terms of engineering and infrastructure abilities of campus facilities.”
Whatever comes next, Scanlon said she hopes it won’t be a repeat of the political violence that has shaken the Hill this year. Safety on campus must also include coming together and developing “a shared version of reality,” she said.
When Alabama Republican Rep. Mo Brooks released a statement last week that appeared to empathize with the would-be bomber, it drew a swift response from colleagues on the other side of the aisle. In the statement, Brooks denounced violence but said he understands “citizenry anger directed at dictatorial Socialism.”
At least one Republican chimed in. “The GOP has a decision to make,” tweeted Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, a frequent critic of former President Donald Trump. “Are we going to be the party that keeps stoking sympathy for domestic terrorists and pushes out truth, or finally take a stand for truth. I’ve made my decision, so has Mo. Now it’s up to GOP conference leadership to make theirs.”
Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.