After nearly three years of pandemic- and insurrection-related security restrictions, tourists next week will be allowed into the House gallery, and unescorted visitors on official business will be able to enter House office buildings.
The changes will take place as Republicans, some of whom have vocally fought against COVID-19 restrictions, are sworn into a majority of House seats in the 118th Congress.
The House gallery will open to the public at the conclusion of the opening session Tuesday, according to a letter sent to members Friday from House Sergeant-at-Arms William J. Walker. Passes obtained from members’ offices will be required, and visitors will be subject to security screening before entering, just as they were prior to the pandemic.
Tours of the Capitol complex were suspended on March 11, 2020, to stop the spread of the coronavirus, but they gradually resumed with numerous restrictions, including size limits. Many of those restrictions now will be lifted, and Saturday tours will resume. An estimated 3-5 million people from around the world visit the Capitol Hill campus each year, and spring is a busy season for school groups, advocacy organizations and tourists to visit.
After House office buildings reopen to the public, staff members will no longer be required to escort guests. But staff will be required to accompany guests visiting the Capitol, as they were before the pandemic.
Lobbyists have been sharply restricted from roaming the Capitol campus unescorted since the start of the COVID-19 crisis. For much of that time, they have been permitted to conduct in-person meetings on Capitol Hill, as long as a congressional aide signs them in and escorts them around the buildings. Rules have been especially strict on the House side, and some on K Street have been pressing for increased access.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the California Republican seeking the speaker’s post, has long pushed for an easing of restrictions.
“Reopening the House is more than just a symbolic measure — a government of the people, by the people, for the people requires interaction with the people,’’ he wrote to legislative branch officials shortly after Republicans won control of the chamber last month. “It is for this reason that we must welcome Americans from across the nation back to the Halls of Congress.”
Reopening the campus has been substantially hampered because of staffing shortages plaguing the Capitol Police.
Walker, in his letter to members, said the decision to fully reopen the Capitol was made in consultation with congressional leaders, the Capitol Police Board, the attending physician, the U.S. Capitol Police and Visitor Services.