Keep the Capitol secure but open

Keep the Capitol secure but open
© Getty Images

I can remember as clearly as if it were yesterday my arrival at the Capitol in March, 1975, as a new staff person for freshman Rep. George MillerGeorge MillerChicago hospital exec resigns after improper Trump Tower vaccine distribution Three ways James Kvaal can lead postsecondary education forward Keep the Capitol secure but open MORE (Calif.). I had been to Washington many times (mostly during anti-Vietnam War demonstrations) and a close family friend who had been our congressman in New Jersey in the 1960s had sent me many cards and mementos of the building. The image of the domed marble and sandstone edifice on the Hill was familiar.

On that cold winter night, the dome was lit brilliantly against a black sky and I was nervously preparing to begin my career as a House employee. As my new officemate dropped me at the Longworth Building, the sight of the massive dome struck me as never before. “Wow,” I said, “if that sight ever stops affecting you emotionally, it’s time to leave.”

When I did depart nearly four decades later, the sight of the dome had no less impact. By that time, the Capitol had become something far more than an iconic office building. For me, like thousands of men and women who have spent countless days and many late nights walking its corridors, meeting in hideaway offices, negotiating the maze of underground tunnels, giving tours to awestruck friends and constituents, there is an historical sacredness to the Capitol, to walking up the stairs worn down over many generations by the Clays and Cannons, the Reeds and the Rayburns, the Lodges and the Kennedys.


It is impossible to describe the anger generated by the attempted desecration of the building by a rampaging mob bent on disrupting our constitutional government. As one who devoted considerable time as chief of staff to Speaker Pelosi on working with those charged with upgrading campus security, it was distressing to see the ease with which the supposedly fortified building was both invaded and vandalized, the operations of Congress disrupted, even if for a few terrifying hours.

In the aftermath, there will be concern that the Capitol does not become a cloistered fortress, surrounded by a tall metal fence, its public galleries separated from the chambers by bulletproof plexiglass shields.

When terrorists shot up the House in 1954, when police officers were killed in 1998 and after 9/11, many suggested installing such safety measures, but congressional leaders felt it crucial that the Capitol remain open to visitors, petitioners, observers and protestors who wanted to see their legislators engaged in debating and voting.

That same determination to maintain the operations of Congress  despite the risks was evident on Wednesday night when the joint session resumed until the prescribed counting of electoral votes was completed at 3:40 a.m.

Members have joined together to decry the violence and violation of the Peoples’ House. Some who had intended to raise protracted objections to the vote certification evidently reconsidered, not wanting to appear sympathetic to the trespassers. Yet even this tragic confrontation does not seem to have completely diffused the partisanship that poisons our politics. An overnight YouGov poll found that one-fifth of all voters — and more than double that number of Republicans — approved of the attempted takeover. Hopefully, successive polling will reflect a broad and bipartisan rejection of such tactics.


Certainly, a thorough after action review of the response by security officials on the Hill, in the Department of Defense (which authorizes use of the District of Columbia’s National Guard) and the D.C. government is essential. Those who work in the Capitol complex, and those around the world who look to the United States as an exemplar of democratic government, need to know that the operations of our Congress will be conducted without fear of intimidation and violence.

Hopefully, changes in campus security will not result in having to impose barriers to separate visitors from their elected officials. If that is the outcome of Wednesday’s distressing violence, the enemies of our Constitution will have scored a battle in which they must never prevail.

John A. Lawrence, former chief of staff to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, is the author of “The Class of ’74: Congress After Watergate and the Roots of Partisanship” and a visiting professor at the University of California’s Washington Center. Follow him on Twittter @JohnALawrenceDC.