How long will the U.S. Capitol be closed to the general public? We have a right to know. We pay for it. The Capitol and the House and Senate office buildings are still closed to the public. At first, the closing was due to the pandemic. Then, that was extended due to the events of January 6. What is the excuse now?
The picture at the top of this post is of workers taking down the fencing that was put up to protect the U.S. Capitol after the January 6 riot on Capitol Hill. It was up for six months. As it turns out, the order to fence off the Capitol building by Nancy Pelosi was an unnecessary overreaction to rumors that what happened on January 6 may happen again. The question is, is it an unnecessary overreaction to keep the Capitol closed using the pandemic as an excuse? It’s pretty easy to make an argument that yes, at this point, it is unnecessary to keep it closed to the public.
Pre-pandemic about 15,000 daily visitors came into the building. We are 21 months into being told that the experts would need two weeks of a national lockdown to stop the spread of the coronavirus. In most places, people are going about their lives in a semi-normal way. The point is that people are not shut out of going into most establishments now. Mask mandates may be in effect and other methods of coronavirus mitigation like social distancing, but that is manageable. A piece in the Washington Post over the weekend asked why is it allowable for 15,000 fans to crowd into Capital One Arena to watch the Washington Wizards play or thousands of fans to pack the Anthem to listen to Bob Dylan perform but the public isn’t allowed to watch from the galleries as the House and the Senate gavel in for business this week? The Kennedy Center Honors brought out hundreds of people to attend the ceremony on Sunday night, including the president, the vice-president, the Speaker of the House, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The audience was masked but there was no social distancing in the seating and the show went on.
As it turns out, no one really knows. Top Republicans and Democrats in the Senate and in the House agree on that. They also agree that there are no ongoing discussions on the subject.
“I don’t know the answer to that. We are paying close attention,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), chair of the House Administration Committee, which oversees the chamber’s operations. She said congressional leaders defer to advice from Brian P. Monahan, the medical expert who runs the Office of Attending Physician.
Those discussions have not been very active, Lofgren said. “Not recently.”
Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), the top Republican on the Senate Rules Committee, with similar oversight parameters on that side of the Capitol, concurred that there have not been robust discussions about when to try to reopen the buildings, even in some reduced numbers from the usual 15,000 daily visitors who came through the doors before the pandemic.
Rep. Steny Hoyer blames the pandemic but admits it’s important to “get people back here peacefully”, which is a nod to January 6.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said that the yo-yo effect of the virus, with infection rates plunging in the late spring and then soaring in the late summer, has made it difficult to plan a reopening. The new omicron variant highlights that concern.
But Hoyer, the fourth-longest serving member of the House, believes it is symbolically important to bring the public back to reject the forces that spawned during the only recent time in which the general public visited the Capitol — on Jan. 6, when thousands broke through outer barriers on the surrounding lawn and hundreds broke into the building in an effort to block certification of the 2020 election.
“I certainly want to get people back in this Capitol,” Hoyer said in an interview Thursday. “So they can see their Capitol — it’s their Capitol — and feel its essence, peacefully. Get people back in here peacefully, who are positive people, who want to see their Capitol as opposed to destroy it.”
The deciders are the House and Senate sergeants-at-arms. They consult with Monahan on the decision. They also factor in post-January 6 security considerations. However, tourists go through security screening as they enter the Capitol Visitors Center and the area is secured with hundreds of Capitol Police officers. At this point, the need for closing the Capitol due to security concerns is out of step with reality. The events of January 6 were a one-off. Democrats want to hold on to it to ride the issue into the re-election cycle of 2022. Other lawmakers point to the trauma experienced that day on Capitol Hill.
Some lawmakers suggest that quite a few of their colleagues remain deeply traumatized — the overall nature of the Jan. 6 attack, hearing the shot that killed one rioter trying to enter the lobby next to the House chamber, and then scampering underground to a secure location.
“Don’t underestimate the trauma,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.).
Connolly said that, for some members, just seeing the general public back in the building would serve as a “trigger” to bring them back to the violence of 11 months ago.
Ok. But life goes on and that includes elected officials. They work for their constituents. They can acknowledge feelings of trauma from that day but they are still there to do a job. Are they not holding town halls or meeting with groups of constituents? If they are unable to get over being triggered by a group of tourists then they are in the wrong place. It’s not really January 6 that is to blame.
Congressional officials do not mention these lingering Jan. 6 concerns when explaining the continued shutdown to the public. Hoyer and Blunt, when asked whether that was part of the holdup, both said no.
“I think it’s about the virus,” Hoyer said.
Hoyer points to the Omicron variant as a new reason for concern and Connolly says until traumatic aftereffects of January 6 ease the re-opening of the Capitol is uncertain. This is unacceptable. There are mitigation measures that can be placed into effect like masks and negative test results for those without a vaccination card. Small groups can be scheduled for tours. As far as the Capitol Police concerns go, they are trained for crowd control, if that comes up. If they are unable to do their job, then they have to get whatever support they need through counseling or find other employment. If that sounds harsh, so be it. Cops in other places lived through the Summer of Love riots and protests, dealing with their own trauma. The Capitol Police are no different.
Parliament in the U.K. re-opened months ago for in-person tours. They are at a more limited capacity than pre-pandemic. Masks are required and they check for contact tracing information in case it is needed later. Social distancing measures are in place. It can be done. Ours is the people’s House. The beauty of our government is that citizens get to watch how it works as it happens. Americans interact with their elected officials. Ours is a citizen legislature – elected officials are equal to their constituents. We want elected officials to be safe and secure as we want the same in our own lives. That security has to be balanced with the right of Americans to access the seat of our government. At this point in the pandemic and eleven months after January 6, it is time to stop looking for excuses to shut down access to elected officials and our nation’s Capitol building for American taxpayers.