Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says during his 30 years in Congress, and years earlier as a US Capitol Police officer, a fencing system for the Capitol was not top of mind.
“That was never, ever considered when I was the leader, or when I served on the Capitol Police force — never considered,” said Reid, who served in various congressional roles from 1983 to 2015 and as a Capitol Police officer in the 1960s while attending law school. Now, after the Jan. 6 insurrection, and another deadly attack last week, Reid’s thinking has shifted. He says the final decision should be up to an “apolitical” commission, similar to one proposed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“Fencing may be necessary,” said the retired Nevada lawmaker. Last week’s tragic incident at the US Capitol came as members of Congress were at home in their districts. And when they return next week, it will be to a renewed debate over security.
Because the Capitol has become such a target, lawmakers are taking up a separate funding bill focused on new safety measures and a beefed up police force. How it is shaped could dictate if the Capitol will return as a meeting place for neighbors and a major tourism draw as an enduring symbol of democracy, or known as fortified building with less access.
“Here we go again”: The long running controversy over fencing has embroiled Capitol security officials, lawmakers and the surrounding Washington, D.C., community for decades. “I was forbidden to use 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 US Capitol Police chief.
The debate puts Capitol security officials who have issued pleas to harden security with permanent fencing against vociferous objections from members and D.C. residents alike. In Gainer’s previous role, he pitched a more pedestrian-friendly plan with a new name to try to win support called the “Capitol Gateway.” That was also summarily dismissed by members, Gainer said.
More recently, Gainer revisited the idea as a member of a Capitol task force charged by Pelosi to investigate the campus after the Jan. 6 insurrection. The panel, led by retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, ultimately recommended the use of a mobile, retractable fencing system instead. Gainer said he was told that members wouldn’t be on board with a more permanent barrier. And while the task force plan was a solution, it wasn’t the best one, he emphasized.
“I thought to myself, well, here we go again,” Gainer said. “If we’re only going to make recommendations that the members want, then we’re not we’re not giving the best recommendations.” Gainer’s predecessor as the Senate’s top protocol officer, Bill Pickle, agrees. Pickle, who served in his role in the mid-2000s, says the fencing idea has bedeviled Congress for at least 40 years.
These security veterans argue that the Capitol should have aesthetically pleasing fencing similar to that used at the White House or the Pentagon. They say such a barrier controls access to the Capitol grounds, and buys time for law enforcement during times of threats. A mobile, retractable fence defeats that purpose by adding time to erect it, they argue.
And most recently, acting Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman issued a similar request this year. “A 2006 security assessment specifically recommended the installation of a permanent perimeter fence around the Capitol,” Pittman said in the January statement. “In light of recent events, I can unequivocally say that vast improvements to the physical security infrastructure must be made to include permanent fencing.”
“Fenced in our democracy”: D.C. Democratic Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton is among a wave of members who support the Honoré recommendation for temporary fencing, but she and others remain opposed to a permanent barrier. “I think most people outside of the District of Columbia forget that the Capitol was located by the framers in a neighborhood,” Norton said.
Now, she’s leading the charge on a bipartisan “no fencing” bill that’s drawn support from both House and Senate members, including Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, the ranking Republican on the Rules Committee. Norton says residents consider the Capitol campus a park, and one of the few places where residents can congregate to sled in the winter, or enjoy a walk in the spring and summer months.
She also argues that the White House is a residence that should be fenced in, but that isn’t the same case for the Capitol. “The fence thing sends exactly the wrong message about the Congress itself,” Norton said. “If you have to fence the Congress in, then you fenced in our democracy, and you’ve shown the world that you can’t take care of your own Capitol.”
Norton and other security officials do agree that last week’s fatal attack — which left 18-year veteran Capitol Police officer William Evans dead — was unfortunately an example of a working security system. The suspect, 25-year-old Noah Green, was prevented from ramming his vehicle further into the Capitol complex by a barricade installed after 9/11.
“That was a test case that I think shows that this fence should come down,” Norton said referring to a temporary fence installed after the insurrection, adding, “and we should open our Capitol to the people once again.” Some of the outer bands of fencing around the campus, including the lawmaker’s office buildings, have been taken down but there is still a barrier around the US Capitol building.
Aside from the Capitol siege, the general public has been blocked from visiting what is normally a major D.C. tourist destination during the pandemic. Now, lawmakers will have to reassess how to open it back up. Arizona Democratic Congressman Ruben Gallego argued after the Jan. 6 riot that the public should not pay the price for lawmaker security. Instead, he says the Capitol must draw visitors again — as it once did when he was a student.
“This is their Capitol. It’s not my Capitol,” Gallego said. “I want students to be coming here like I did in my eighth grade year and walk around and wander out and see this place as an open and welcoming place.” But security experts say the Capitol now faces a more complex set of threats, domestic and beyond, tied to social media and homegrown extremist groups. And that could impact how the complex receives visitors in the future again.
Pickle argues that members and residents who argue against a permanent fence today are being selfish. “You have to ensure that the continuity of government will continue, that the Capitol and the White House are not destroyed,” Pickle says. “So don’t be selfish. It’s about the country. If you believe in the country, you’ll do everything to make sure that government survives and endures.”
Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR’s Washington Desk. Before joining NPR in June 2019, she was a Capitol Hill reporter covering military affairs for Stars and Stripes. She also covered breaking news involving fallen service members and the Trump administration’s relationship with the military. She also investigated service members who have undergone toxic exposures, such as the atomic veterans who participated nuclear bomb testing and subsequent cleanup operations.