A popular Western song back in the mid-twentieth century was, “Don’t Fence Me In.” It was recorded in the 1940s and 1950s by everyone from Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, to Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, to the Andrews Sisters and Ella Fitzgerald.
It became such an American favorite because it spoke to our country’s frontier spirit, pushing ever westward, seeking greater freedom and new opportunities. That same impulse has extended in recent times to expanding the frontiers of individual liberty.
What brought all this to mind was this week’s decision by the Capitol Police Board to reinstall a seven-foot high chain-link fence around the Capitol and Supreme Court, similar to the one erected shortly after the Jan. 6, 2021, invasion of the building by a violent mob.
The fence was dismantled last July in response to member complaints that it was interfering with their ability to carry-out their responsibilities on the Hill. It was not just a matter of “optics,” though in this instance the optics run much deeper than superficial appearances, but of everyday disruptions and inconveniences members were experiencing in everything from meeting with visiting constituents to navigating the frenetic traffic flow through the Capitol complex of members, their staffs and committees, executive branch officials, interest group representatives, and the media.
The current perceived threat prompting the re-fencing of the Capitol is the “Justice for J6” rally on the west lawn Saturday, Sept. 18, in support of some 600 defendants imprisoned for their participation in the violent Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol. Rally organizer Matt Braynard, a former Trump 2016 campaign employee, says he expects around 700 people to attend. Simultaneous “J6” rallies will take place in 13 other locations around the country.
The Police Board’s decision to resurrect the fence was announced by the Board Monday after presenting a classified briefing to the bipartisan, bicameral leadership. Capitol Police Chief Thomas Manger told reporters afterwards that the fence will go up a day or two before the rally and will come down soon after, if all goes as planned.
The Board’s decision gives party leaders and their colleagues cover from charges they are re-clogging the channels of democratic communication. They can rightfully argue that Congress is only doing what Capitol security experts recommend to ensure the institution can carry-on safely and unimpeded.
The Capitol Police Board consists of the House and Senate Sergeants-at- Arms, the Senate Doorkeeper, and the Architect of the Capitol (AOC). The Chief of the Capitol Police serves as ex-officio, non-voting member of the Board. The chairmanship alternates in each Congress between the House and Senate Sergeants-at-Arms and is currently held by Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Karen H. Gibson. Both Sergeants-at-Arms and the Senate Doorkeeper are elected by their respective chambers upon nomination by the majority party caucuses.
The AOC, on the other hand, is accountable to both the Congress and the Supreme Court. Unlike other Board members, the AOC is nominated by the president, and subject to Senate confirmation. The current Architect of the Capitol, Brett Blanton, was nominated by President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump announces new social media network called 'TRUTH Social' Virginia State Police investigating death threat against McAuliffe Meadows hires former deputy AG to represent him in Jan. 6 probe: report MORE on Dec. 9, 2019, confirmed by the Senate on Dec. 19, and sworn into office on Jan. 16, 2020.
The reinstallation of a steel mesh fence around the Capitol this week can be viewed objectively as a commonsense measure to allow constitutional processes to function smoothly. This should not be a major problem since neither house will be in session Saturday. The Senate is in session briefly this week, and the House does not return until next Monday, Sept. 20.
The new protective barrier, even if only temporary, as officials insist, still reinforces public perceptions that Congress is once again walling itself off as fortress on a Hill, above and apart from the people it purports to represent. And that perception only further exacerbates the widening gulf of distrust between the government and the governed. Will a new fence be re-installed every time a planned rally threatens potential violence against Congress? If so, it brings a whole new dynamic to the pending infrastructure bill.
Robert Frost begins his poem, “Mending Wall,” with the words, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Ultimately, though, he concludes his poem with the expression, “Good fences make good neighbors.” That may be true for individual property owners, but it is antithetical to the foundational purpose of “the People’s House.” Instead of a “mending wall,” the on-again, off-again steel ring around the Capitol is a “rending wall,” tearing at the very fabric of American democratic governance.
Don Wolfensberger is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Bipartisan Policy Center, the former staff director the House Rules Committee, and author of “Congress and the People: From Fair Play to Power Plays.” The views expressed are solely his own.