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One thing Republicans plan to do if they win the election? Fully reopen the Capitol

‘This is the people’s House — and that’s not just a throwaway line,’ one staffer says

Democrats have been reopening the Capitol in phases, with restrictions easing further this fall. But some pandemic-era restrictions remain, and security is a concern. Above, people on a tour wave from the top of the Capitol dome in May.
Democrats have been reopening the Capitol in phases, with restrictions easing further this fall. But some pandemic-era restrictions remain, and security is a concern. Above, people on a tour wave from the top of the Capitol dome in May. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

As election watchers imagine what the Hill will look like after the midterms, they may start with the bustle in the hallways. The Capitol could fully reopen to the public as soon as January if Republicans win a majority.

Democrats have overseen a phased reopening of the sprawling complex since March as the pandemic eased its grasp, taking their cues from Congress’ physician and the sergeants at arms, who control security.

But throughout the process, GOP lawmakers have bemoaned the seat of government’s half-open doors. House Administration Committee ranking member Rodney Davis told CQ Roll Call his party plans to swing them wide open. 

“The American people have the constitutional right to access and petition their government. Republicans have been clear that once we are in the majority, the campus will again be fully open,” he said. 

Davis won’t be back in the new year. He lost a primary race against Donald Trump-backed freshman Rep. Mary Miller in Illinois’ 15th District. 

But a senior GOP House Administration staffer said Reps. Barry Loudermilk of Georgia and Bryan Steil of Wisconsin, the other two Republicans currently on the panel, agree with Davis and would work to fully reopen the Capitol, in coordination with health and security officials. 

“Conversations would start after Election Day, once we know. That would give a several-week window to figure out what’s reasonable. But with the start of the new Congress, I think there’d be some expectations that there’s a different look and feel,” the staffer said.

In September, the Capitol entered its third phase of reopening. That means visitors can book a tour up to 150 days in advance, led by a Capitol guide, or seek one out through their member’s office. Lawmakers can also now escort visitors to the galleries overlooking the House floor and leave them there, provided a staffer stays behind to escort them out of the building. 

Also new in phase three: member-led tours on the House floor while the chamber is out of session. 

Appointments are still required to enter House office buildings to meet with members or their staff, as is a staff escort into and around the building. Appointments are likewise needed on the Senate side. 

The escort system has rankled some lobbyists who used to roam the halls of the office buildings more freely, chatting up staff and pushing their agendas. 

“Staff shouldn’t be babysitting us. We are professionals. We should be treated as professionals,” said Paul Miller, chairman of the National Institute for Lobbying and Ethics. 

Yasmin Nelson, a former senior policy adviser to then-Sen. Kamala Harris, left Capitol Hill in 2019 to work for the law firm Bracewell. She’s lobbying on the House and Senate side without any problem but said in-person meetings do require extra leg work. 

“You have to ask,” Nelson said. “At this point, it’s the default to do a virtual meeting because folks are just so used to it.”  

Paul Miller sees the same continued reliance on virtual meetings. But you can’t run an effective government via Zoom, he argued. 

“I know it’s convenient for people to be at home, but you cannot get the same type of message and interaction with people on Zoom that you can face to face,” he said. 

Lobbyists know the culture may not change overnight, but they expect a Republican majority would be eager to discard most, if not all, of the restrictions the Democrats put in place.  

Will Dunham, who recently joined the lobbying team at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck after seven years as policy director and committees liaison for House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, was asked last month at a panel discussion hosted by the firm whether GOP lawmakers would fully reopen the Capitol if they win big in the midterms. 

“I think you’ll see a return to pre-COVID normalcy, in terms of the openness of the Capitol itself and the broader complex,” Dunham said. “I do think, though, that security is a concern for both sides.”

Threats to members on the rise

Security could be the sticking point that keeps Republicans from making good on their promise to fully reopen. The recent attack on the husband of Speaker Nancy Pelosi has brought threats against lawmakers top of mind. 

House Administration Chairperson Zoe Lofgren said in a letter to Capitol Police that the attack on Paul Pelosi and other events “raise significant questions” about member security. 

Threats are on the rise, the California Democrat warned, with Capitol Police receiving approximately 9,625 in 2021. 

Capitol Police Chief J. Thomas Manger in a statement last week said the force would be sending Congress a formal request for more funds to help better protect lawmakers.

While some members of the GOP may downplay those concerns or mock them on the campaign trail, the fear on the Hill is hard to ignore.  

“Politics right now are really at a heightened state that I haven’t seen in my career,” Nelson said. 

The former Democratic staffer said she could foresee a possible reopening in 2023, but that “there absolutely needs to be new norms” for the safety of members and staff, rather than a return to the same exact procedures in place before the pandemic and last year’s mob violence on Jan. 6. 

The Capitol Police have struggled with staffing shortages, compounded by the stresses of the Jan. 6 attack. But an “aggressive recruiting campaign” this past summer means the force is on track to hire roughly 280 people by the end of the year, a spokesperson told CQ Roll Call.

Asked how the Capitol Police would handle an increase in visitors in 2023, the spokesperson said, “We are working closely with all of our congressional stakeholders to come up with a plan with everyone’s safety being our top priority. We will have to assess the situation as the year unfolds.”

The conversation around security is definitely one that should be had, the GOP staffer with House Administration said. But the staffer also pointed out that several devastating attacks against members — such as when former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., was shot at a Safeway in her district, or Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., was shot at a congressional baseball practice — have happened off the Capitol campus. 

“This is the people’s House — and that’s not just a throwaway line,” the staffer said, arguing security concerns don’t justify closing off the halls of government to constituents. 

At least one Democrat wholeheartedly agrees it’s time to return to the days when 3 million visitors toured the Capitol each year.  

Washington Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton says the country is in a post-coronavirus period. “And we should act that way,” she said, stressing that the tourism downturn has left the nation’s capital “suffering tremendously.” 

“I’m for taking advantage of the fact,” Norton said, “that so many people across the country are vaccinated to just fling open the doors of the Capitol, which is one of the primary places they come to see.” 

Kate Ackley and Aidan Quigley contributed to this report.

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