When you work on Capitol Hill, you are struck by two contrasting facts: You work in a secure location, but threats still very much exist.
We all remember that on 9/11 the commercial airliner that was courageously brought to the ground in Pennsylvania was intended to strike either the Capitol or the White House.
I worked in the Senate for four years from 2005 to 2009, and hardly a week would go by without some type of security alert: a suspicious package in one building, a truck that was being searched or even a plane that mistakenly entered secure airspace. The anthrax scare from a few years ago dramatically changed mail screening for all Congressional offices.
On special days, such as for the State of the Union address or if the president or vice president was in the Capitol for the Tuesday policy lunch, security was extremely tight, and if you were not displaying your staff identification at all times, you would be questioned.
The recent tragic shooting in Tucson, Ariz., has understandably shaken Capitol Hill, the Members, the spouses, and the staffers and interns. While this case appears to be one mentally deranged individual without a partisan political ideology, security officials are on high alert and the Congressional leadership is rightfully taking this very seriously.
Freshman Members of Congress have no way to gauge whether they are under threat because the entire experience of being in Congress is new to them.
The reality is, while Members of Congress do not have their own security, the Capitol complex is a very secure place to work. There is virtually no way to penetrate it. Everyone who enters, except for Members of Congress, who receive hard pins, must pass through a metal detector. Vehicle barriers prevent cars from entering the Capitol premises without being screened by the Capitol Police, and vehicles that park in Capitol garages or near a House or Senate office building require a parking tag displayed.
When politicians are working in their offices or voting in the Capitol, they are in one of the most secure locations in the world. However, when they are back home in their districts, they are not protected.
In light of the tragic events in Tucson, this may change.
The more likely scenario is that any and all threats will be more vigilantly investigated and perpetrators more furiously pursued.
The candidate for whom I recently worked said that he had only once felt threatened during the campaign and that was by one belligerent person in Madisonville, Texas, who seemed only interested in a shouting match.
My former boss in the Senate was pursued by a stalker for a time and received outstanding security protection from the Capitol Police before the individual was apprehended.
Members of Congress should take relief in the knowledge that the Capitol Police are spending every waking minute ensuring that the Capitol is secure and that any threats against Members or their staffs are taken seriously.
Going forward, it should be standard operating procedure for Members of Congress and their staffs to consider security precautions for every public event they hold in their districts. Security should become a mandatory line item in the planning stage, just like the speaking program and earned media. Members of Congress should invite local police to attend their public events, which will not only make them feel more secure, but will make those attending feel better also.
The tragedy in Tucson should not and cannot make it more difficult for our elected officials to be accessible to their constituents. Our system of representation requires constant feedback from the public for our Representatives to do their jobs.
But we should first acknowledge that the Capitol is secure. Second, we should all be more vigilant and take potential threats seriously by reporting them immediately. Third, Members of Congress and their staffs should pursue reasonable security procedures in their districts in the near term.
Rather than overreact, we can take reasonable measures in response to the tragic events in Tucson.
Matt Mackowiak, president of Potomac Strategy Group, is a former Capitol Hill aide who recently managed the campaign of Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas).
Visitors get their first look at the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, which opened to the public on Monday, Oct. 6, 2014. The new memorial is located off Independence Ave. SW between the Rayburn House Office Building and HHS. Buy photo here.