Congress eyes return of tourists with eagerness, anxiety

‘It really rings hollow when you can’t go there,’ one tour operator says of Capitol symbolism

Tourists from Tennessee are seen in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall on Tuesday. While small groups can now get inside the building with help from lawmakers, the Capitol Visitor Center has been closed for two years during the pandemic.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Tourists from Tennessee are seen in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall on Tuesday. While small groups can now get inside the building with help from lawmakers, the Capitol Visitor Center has been closed for two years during the pandemic. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 9, 2022 at 6:15am

Two years ago this Saturday, the Capitol suddenly closed its doors to the public as the pandemic swept in.

That won’t change this weekend, even as normality returns to most of Washington, but the anniversary is fueling debate about access to the home of Congress.

The corridors of power have grown crowded again as workers return in person, though things aren’t fully back, to the chagrin of some and relief of others. Guests must be escorted by a lawmaker or aide, and the cavernous Capitol Visitor Center remains empty.

On a conference call with Democratic chiefs of staff on Monday, a House Administration Committee staffer announced a reopening plan is in the works, with more details to come in two to three weeks, according to multiple people on the call. The House’s public health emergency is set to expire on March 30.

That’s too late for Tim Krepp, who after 20 years in the industry recently decided to leave his job managing private student tour groups, thanks in large part to the stresses of the pandemic.

“We had a very traumatic COVID,” he said. “I had to fire all my guides — that’s about 90 to 100 guides.”

Krepp himself was furloughed at times. In between, he organized tours across the country. Krepp said it was difficult dealing with the coronavirus and each state’s separate regulations, but when a mob attacked the Capitol last year on Jan. 6, it made things worse in D.C., where he also lives.

“There’s just a feeling that things aren’t 100 percent back to normal and aren’t likely to be that way even if COVID magically disappeared tomorrow,” he said. “It’s kind of like a fire has gone through the forest, the trees are just starting to recover a little bit and then a windstorm comes through.”

Krepp said the Capitol’s closure has kept tourists away from D.C. — why travel all the way there if you can’t see one of the primary sights? More troubling, he said, has been the long trend toward restricting access and cordoning off more and more of the Capitol from the public. “We’re… trying to sell these kids on the idea that this is the centerpiece of democracy and all the virtues of America, and it really rings hollow when you can’t go there,” he said.

Tourism concerns led D.C.’s delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, to call for the Capitol’s reopening in a press release Tuesday. “Restrictions due to COVID-19 are disappearing in the District of Columbia and nationwide because vaccines work, and there is no reason to believe visitors in the Capitol would imperil security,” the Democrat said. “Given the importance of the Capitol to D.C.’s tourist economy, it is time for the Capitol, like the rest of D.C. is already doing, to reopen to visitors.”

On Monday afternoon, some tourists snapping selfies on the east side of the Capitol didn’t seem bothered that the building was closed.

Len Nguyen, a freshman at the University of Rochester, was in town with three friends for spring break. “We were just about to walk in when some lady was like, ‘You can’t walk in here,’” he said. “It’s kind of limiting, but I think it’s valid.”

Nathan, a 31-year-old from Buffalo who declined to give his last name, was in town to see Half Alive at the Lincoln Theatre. He and his friends assumed the government buildings would be closed because of Jan. 6, but they still managed to check out some Smithsonian museums and go up the Washington Monument before the show.

Kaisia Torrence drove up from Carthage, N.C., with three friends for another concert, Kali Uchis at the Capital One Arena later that night. But beforehand, they decided to take in some of the sights. They didn’t know the Capitol was closed until this reporter told them. “We didn’t come here for the government side of D.C.,” she said.

Instead, she said, D.C.’s legalized marijuana was the other major draw. “Music and ganja, those are my two priorities right now,” she said.

Truly determined sightseers can submit a request to their senators, but space is limited. Those small tours, which started in December, can’t compare to the massive operation that once ran through the Capitol Visitor Center, which welcomed 2.4 million guests in 2017. Powered by professional guides wearing iconic red coats, it’s been the Capitol’s public entryway and security checkpoint for much of the post-9/11 era. 

Lobbyists have a stake in reopening too. While many have returned to the Capitol’s corridors as invited guests, the escort rule has cramped their style. The Credit Union National Association’s annual legislative conference last week, for example, was partially virtual, partially in-person, with some flying in to meet lawmakers face-to-face. Many of those meetings were held just off the Hill at locations like the Republican Capitol Hill Club and Bullfeathers pub, CUNA executive vice president Ryan Donovan told CQ Roll Call.

The lobbyist for lobbyists, the National Institute for Lobbying and Ethics, is calling for wider access to the building by July 11.

Republicans have been pushing harder and longer to reopen than Democrats, who’ve expressed more concerns not just about the ongoing pandemic, which killed 1,686 Americans Monday, but also lingering security concerns from the Jan. 6 attack.

Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., speaks to a group of students from the Randolph School on the Senate steps on Tuesday. While fencing kept visitors at bay after last year‘s mob attack on Jan. 6, the public can now roam the Capitol grounds. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate passed a resolution last week by unanimous consent that supported a return to pre-pandemic visitation policies without specifying a date. On Tuesday, the resolution’s sponsor, Tennessee Republican Bill Hagerty, sent a letter to Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Rules Chair Amy Klobuchar demanding they act by April 4.  

The Senate and House sergeants-at-arms call the shots on security matters, and the Office of the Attending Physician issues pandemic guidance. But deciding when and how to reopen the Capitol is also fraught with emotion. 

During a tense colloquy on the House floor last week, Republican Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana urged Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland to bring up a reopening resolution, much as the Senate had done. As the two sniped back and forth, Hoyer implied that Republicans themselves are giving him reason to fear.   

“If we are telling people in this country that Jan. 6 was ‘legitimate political discourse,’ we’re going to have great concerns about opening up this Capitol for the safety of our members, for the safety of the public who wants to visit, for the safety of our staff,” Hoyer said, referring to a recent resolution from the Republican National Committee that described the events of that day as “legitimate political discourse.”

Daniel Schuman, policy director for Demand Progress, agreed that Capitol Hill is not ready for a full reopening. Schuman pointed out that funds for upgrading safety measures to the physical buildings are tied up in the fiscal year 2022 appropriations package, which Congress is expected to pass as soon as this week, more than five months after the fiscal year began.

“The Capitol complex is not safe,” he said. “It’s not safe from a security perspective, but it’s also not safe from a facility perspective. It’s a fire trap — they still haven’t put sprinklers in on the first floor and third floor.”

Schuman also said more thought needed to be given toward safety policies that would effectively prevent or discourage attacks, saying some of the current proposals being floated are unworkable, like a visitors’ log with background checks akin to what is used at the White House.

Despite the Capitol Police’s large funding increases in recent years — it’s gone up from $115 million in 2000 to over $500 million in 2021 in real terms — and the intense criticism they faced after the pro-Trump mob overwhelmed their defenses on Jan. 6, Schuman says the force remains unprepared to respond to the next attack.

“This is largely a management and training problem and not a funding problem, with regard to the Capitol Police,” he said. “With regard to the buildings, it’s totally a funding problem.”

Chris Marquette and Kate Ackley contributed to this report.