J. Scott Applewhite / AP
Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said that during his 30 years in Congress, and years earlier as a United States Capitol Police officer, a system of fencing for the Capitol was not a priority.
“It was never, ever considered when I was the chief, or when I served in the Capitol Police – never considered,” said Reid, who held various roles in Congress from 1983 to 2015 and in. as a Capitol police officer in the 1960s. attending law school.
Now, after the January 6 insurgency and another deadly attack last week, Reid’s thinking has changed. He says the final decision should be made by an “apolitical” commission, similar to that proposed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“Fencing may be necessary,” said the retired Nevada lawmaker.
Last week’s tragic incident on the U.S. Capitol came as members of Congress were at home in their districts. And when they return next week, it will be for a renewed debate on security.
Because the Capitol has become such a target, lawmakers are passing a separate funding bill focused on new security measures and a stronger police force. Its shape could dictate whether the Capitol will return as a meeting place for neighbors and as a major tourist draw as a lasting symbol of democracy, or known as a fortified building with less access.
“Here we go again”
The long-standing fencing controversy has confused Capitol Hill security officials, lawmakers, and the surrounding Washington, DC community for decades.
“I have been prohibited from using the word ‘fence’,” Terry Gainer told NPR. He served as Reid’s Senate Sergeant-at-Arms from 2006 to 2014 – a top security post – and also worked as the United States Capitol Police Chief.
The debate puts Capitol Hill security officials who have issued calls to beef up security with permanent fences against vehement objections from members and residents of DC.
In the previous role of Gainer, he launched a more pedestrian-friendly plan with a new name to try and gain support called “Capitol Gateway”. It was also summarily dismissed by members, Gainer said.
Most recently, Gainer revisited the idea as a member of a Capitol Hill task force commissioned by Pelosi to investigate the campus after the Jan.6 uprising. The committee, led by retired Lieutenant General Russel Honoré, ultimately recommended the use of a movable and retractable fence system instead.
Gainer said he was told the members would not be on board with a more permanent barrier. And if the task force plan was a solution, it wasn’t the best, he said.
“I was like, well, here we are again,” Gainer said. “If we only make recommendations that the members want, then we are not giving the best recommendations.”
Gainer’s predecessor as the Senate’s senior protocol officer, Bill Pickle, agrees. Pickle, who served in the mid-2000s, says the idea of fencing has plagued Congress for at least 40 years.
These security veterans argue that the Capitol should have aesthetic fences similar to those used in the White House or the Pentagon.
They say such a barrier controls access to the Capitol grounds and saves time for law enforcement in times of threat. A movable, retractable fence defeats this goal by adding time to erect it, they say.
And more recently, Acting Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman issued a similar request this year.
“A 2006 security assessment specifically recommended the installation of a permanent fence around the Capitol,” Pittman said in the January statement. “In light of recent events, I can unequivocally state that vast improvements in physical security infrastructure need to be made to include permanent fences.”
“Closed in our democracy”
DC Democratic delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton is among a wave of members who support Honoré’s recommendation for a temporary fence, but she and others remain opposed to a permanent fence.
“I think most people outside of the District of Columbia forget that the Capitol was located by framers in a neighborhood,” Norton said.
Now she is leading the charge on a bipartisan “no-fence” bill that has garnered support from members of the House and Senate, including Missouri Senator Roy Blunt, the Republican rank-and-file on the Rules Committee.
Norton says residents see the Capitol Campus as a park and one of the few places where residents can congregate to toboggan in the winter or take a walk in the spring and summer.
She also maintains that the White House is a residence that should be gated, but the same is not the case for the Capitol.
“The fence thing sends exactly the wrong message to Congress itself,” Norton said. “If you have to close Congress, then you have closed our democracy, and you have shown the world that you cannot take care of your own Capitol.”
Norton and other security officials agree that last week’s deadly attack – which killed 18-year-old veteran Capitol Officer William Evans – was sadly an example of a functioning security system.
The suspect, Noah Green, 25, was prevented from pushing his vehicle further into the Capitol complex by a barricade set up after 9/11.
“It was a test case which I think shows that fence should fall,” Norton said, referring to a temporary fence put in after the insurgency, adding “and we should open our Capitol again to the people.”
Some of the exterior bands of fencing around the campus, including the lawmaker’s office buildings, have been dismantled, but there is still a barrier around the US Capitol building.
Aside from the Capitol headquarters, the general public has been barred from visiting what is normally a major DC tourist destination during the pandemic. Now lawmakers will have to re-evaluate how to reopen it.
Arizona Democratic Congressman Ruben Gallego argued after the Jan.6 riot that the public should not pay the price for the safety of lawmakers. Instead, he says the Capitol must once again attract visitors – as he once did when he was a student.
“This is their Capitol. This is not my Capitol,” said Gallego. “I want the students to come here like I did in my eighth grade, walk around and walk around and see this place as an open and welcoming place.
But security experts say the Capitol now faces a more complex set of threats, national and beyond, linked to social media and local extremist groups. And that could have an impact on how the resort receives visitors again in the future.
Pickle argues that the members and residents who oppose a permanent fence today are selfish.
“You have to make sure that the continuity of government continues, that the Capitol and the White House are not destroyed,” Pickle says. “So don’t be selfish. This is about the country. If you believe in the country, you will do anything to make sure the government survives and continues.”