Proposal for permanent Capitol fencing sparks bipartisan pushback

The tall, imposing fencing around the Capitol has come to epitomize the debate over security concerns following the Jan. 6 riot versus ensuring that citizens aren’t walled off from their government, and a Capitol Police proposal this week to make it permanent is sparking bipartisan backlash.

Both local leaders and members of Congress are objecting. Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) said the city government “would not accept” permanent fencing around the Capitol, vowing it would come down “when the time is right.” 

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) declared that she was “adamantly opposed” to fencing around the “People’s House,” while Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.) said that “it is a mistake to turn the home of our democracy into a fortress.”

But for now, the days of allowing even passing joggers to get close to the building and within a few feet of lawmakers moving about the campus are on hold as threats continue to rise.

The Jan. 6 insurrection by thousands of former President Trump’s supporters attempting to stop Congress from certifying President Biden’s election victory, which resulted in the deaths of five people, including a Capitol Police officer, now has Capitol Hill trying to mitigate what the Department of Homeland Security has deemed a domestic terror threat.

Anyone currently entering the Capitol complex must pass through two layers of tall fencing — around the immediate Capitol grounds as well as the nearby office buildings — and walk past thousands of National Guard members who are set to be stationed there into March, through Trump’s impeachment trial, after the city’s downtown core was effectively shut down for Biden’s inauguration to guard against extremists threatening the transition of power.

Yogananda Pittman, the acting Capitol Police chief, called Thursday for permanent fencing, noting that a 2006 security assessment recommended such a measure and that security experts had made the argument for more stringent protections for the Capitol even before 9/11.  

“In light of recent events, I can unequivocally say that vast improvements to the physical security infrastructure must be made to include permanent fencing, and the availability of ready, back-up forces in close proximity to the Capitol,” Pittman said in a statement.

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), the chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees funding for the legislative branch, said that any changes to the Capitol’s security posture would likely come after discussions with security experts and looking at how other legislatures around the world handle threats.

“We’re going to obviously take recommendations from security people who know a lot more about this than we do and see what the threat assessments are and then see how we can best do it balancing accessibility to the Capitol,” Ryan said.

Members of the House and Senate Appropriations committees are also reviewing supplemental funding requests from the Capitol Police and sergeants-at-arms to address security concerns for the Capitol campus and individual members of Congress. It’s not yet clear when Congress will approve the extra funding.

“There’s obviously significant costs attached to the security footprint,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Ryan’s Senate counterpart overseeing legislative branch funding.

The House passed a similar funding measure in 2017 after the congressional baseball shooting, which nearly cost House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) his life, to grant lawmakers an extra $25,000 for security needs.

Lawmakers have also in the past been able to use campaign funds to pay for home security.

Neither Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) nor Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has taken a position on permanent fencing around the Capitol.

“The Speaker looks forward to General Honoré’s final assessment in order to understand what infrastructure changes are necessary to ensure the safety of the U.S. Capitol Complex,” said spokesman Drew Hammill, referring to the post-Jan. 6 security review ordered by Pelosi. 

Schumer said he “would tend to defer to the experts as to what is the safest way to be” but that “there should be both. Safety and the right to access the building.”

Security officials have raised the idea of a fence around the Capitol for decades, including after the 9/11 attacks.

In 2004, the Capitol Police chief at the time argued that a physical barrier would increase security and put the estimated cost range at $15 million to $50 million.

“The impact from the lack of it is felt every day and is shown in the numbers of required personnel and our budget,” Terrance Gainer, the Capitol Police chief at the time, testified before a Senate panel.

Lawmakers in both parties balked at the idea of making the Capitol complex less accessible to the public, and the proposal never came to fruition.

But the current fencing — and debate over keeping it to fend off external threats — won’t contain Democrats’ concerns that some of their own GOP colleagues pose internal threats.

Some House Republicans have been open about carrying guns on the Capitol grounds, refused to comply with newly installed metal detectors outside the House chamber and, in the case of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), appeared in the past to endorse executing prominent Democrats, including Pelosi, in social media posts.

“The enemy is within the House of Representatives,” Pelosi said in an extraordinary declaration on Thursday.

Asked to clarify what she meant, Pelosi replied, “It means that we have members of Congress who want to bring guns on the floor and have threatened violence on other members of Congress.”

On Friday, Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) revealed that she is moving her office down the hall from Greene’s in the Longworth House Office Building after the two first-term lawmakers got into a verbal altercation over wearing masks earlier this month.

“In the context of Taylor Greene’s repeated endorsements of executing Democratic politicians before taking office, Taylor Greene’s renewed, repeated antagonization of the movement for Black lives in the last month directed towards me personally is cause for serious concern,” Bush said in a statement. 

Tags Capitol breach Capitol riot Charles Schumer Chris Murphy Chuck Schumer Donald Trump Elise Stefanik Muriel Bowser Nancy Pelosi Steve Scalise Tim Ryan
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