Members of Congress Acknowledge Major Security Gap at House Garages

(Hannah Hess/CQ Roll Call)

Over the course of four workdays, Capitol Police spotted two 9 mm handguns during the security searches that are standard protocol for visitors and staffers entering congressional office buildings. Meanwhile, the Capitol community paid tribute to two Capitol Police officers killed in a gun battle in the Capitol 16 years earlier.  

Nothing indicates the two men arrested for entering the Cannon House Office Building were intent on doing harm, but the timing of the grim anniversary of the deaths of Detective John Gibson and Officer Jacob J. Chestnut on July 24, 1998, framed some of the concerns of members and staffers with a massive security loophole in the House garages.  

On July 18 and 23, the security protocol at the Cannon doors worked. But, if someone with access to the House parking garages carried a gun, as staffer Ryan Shucard allegedly did , members believe he or she could enter office buildings without a bag check or metal detector screening. "You know, there’s only so much you can do," said Rep. James P. Moran, D-Va. "If you can bring a gun in, I don’t know how we stop it, frankly. At some point you’ve got to rely upon, you know, people acting rationally and responsibly.”  

Both Republicans and Democrats on the panel that sets the budget for securing the Capitol agree that it's a complex and careful calculation. In the wake of the gun incident, leaders of the House Administration Committee, who have oversight over the campus, indicated law enforcement is working to mitigate the problem.  

"The officers protecting the entrances to the House office buildings are clearly doing an exceptional job keeping Members, staff, and the public safe," Chairman Candice S. Miller, R-Mich., and ranking member Robert A. Brady, D-Pa., said in a joint statement to CQ Roll Call. "We can assure our colleagues that the Sergeant at Arms re-assesses the security needs of this Institution constantly and takes every appropriate precaution to ensure the safety of everyone who works in or visits the complex."  

Like other congressional agencies, Capitol Police were hit hard by the sequester, which closed Capitol doors  and vehicle access points in March 2013.  

“It’s a fine balance between access, you know, it would be unmanageable if you’re searching every vehicle as it comes into each garage,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., chairman of the House Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee. Cole said there is a lot of tension between easy access, which the committee wants for the convenience of constituents and staff who need to be able to move expeditiously around the complex, and security.  

“At the same time, it is a target because it’s such a symbolic venue,” he said. “All I can say is I would take any suggestions they had very seriously.”  

At exterior House office building doors and checkpoints in tunnels below the Capitol, visitors and staffers meet metal detectors, empty their pockets and submit their bags for a search. Those who drive into work on the House side are not subject to the same level of security. Tackling security at the House garages appears to be a massive and expensive undertaking, involving more than 100 doors, staffing and screening equipment.  

"We have already dedicated funds to the Sergeant at Arms in order to mitigate potential incidents in the garages, however there is no doubt that the lack of comprehensive parking garage screening is a vulnerability in House security,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., a veteran legislative branch appropriator and ranking member on the panel, said in an email to CQ Roll Call. Funding was included in the fiscal 2014 spending bill, according to her office.  

Wasserman Schultz stressed that the panel is committed to working with the House Administration Committee, the Capitol Police and the Sergeant-at-Arms “to continue identifying, understanding and addressing these security concerns while seeking to strike the right balance between enhanced House security and managing House access for Members, staff, and visitors."  

During hearings this spring, appropriators grilled House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul D. Irving and Capitol Police Chief Kim C. Dine on bottlenecks at the doors and asked whether they planned to open more access points if funding increased.  In the fiscal 2015 spending bill approved by the House on May 1, the Capitol Police received $355.66 million — a $9.5 million increase over enacted levels in 2014.  

"We started with, we want more doors open because you’ve got these big queues of people out in front of House office buildings, not very far from the Navy Yard,"  legislative branch appropriator Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., said in an interview. "Large concentrations of people, whether they be here, in a mall, in a theater, you probably want to avoid [in case of mass shooting events]."  

While the House Administration Committee oversees Capitol Police, it's the lawmakers holding their purse strings who take on the role of examining department resources ranging from staffing levels to tools and equipment. In interviews, appropriators acknowledged they were looking carefully at police budgets — not out of dissatisfaction with performance, but to figure out the best way to allocate dollars.  

"I’m not saying they don’t have a tough job," Amodei said. "They suffered sequester, but having said that, what we’re starting [to look at] is, how are you spending this money? It might be time for a little more concentration on how you spend your money, who’s making the overtime — is it those people out there doing that sort of stuff?  

“You want the maximum security that you can have, in view of the fact that it’s still an open, public place and it should be accessible,” the Nevadan continued. "I'm not a fatalist, but if you are intent on doing harm you can. ... It's unfortunate, but part and parcel of the decision to serve.”  

Amodei said he also wants to ensure the "maximum protection we can get within these resource confines."  

A few hours after pork executive Ronald William Prestage was arrested after police detected a loaded 9 mm handgun in his briefcase, legislative branch appropriator Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., said security as it exists is fine. “I’m not really concerned," he told CQ Roll Call. "I’m not concerned that our security is not tight enough”  

Members of the House Administration Committee said from a workplace safety perspective, the two gun incidents show Capitol Police are doing their job. Reps. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and Gregg Harper, R-Miss., both praised the officers' work.  

Asked about the garage vulnerability, Harper indicated he was not aware of any breaches, but the committee was always conscious of screening levels. “Not only are we dependent upon the members, we’re dependent also upon our staff who you believe will do the right thing in that situation," he said.

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., chairman of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, said he didn't know how a person could forget they had a loaded gun in their bag, and also praised the police. "They didn’t get in with the gun, so I think that speaks highly of our Capitol Police and our gun screening mechanism,” Thompson said.