When Rep. Gabrielle Giffords left the House chamber Wednesday, she closed the circle on a tumultuous year that, beginning with her shooting on Jan. 8, 2011, fundamentally altered the relationships between Members of Congress and their constituents.
An outpouring of affection and concern enveloped the Arizona Democrat from the moment she was gunned down at a “Congress on Your Corner” event in suburban Tucson, Ariz. Her colleagues, who inhabit a world of perpetual conflict and combative language, were thrown. Someone was really shot; someone just like them.
But Giffords came back, leading to Wednesday’s incredible display of emotion on the House floor.
“Gabby, we love you,” said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). On any other day, this would have been just more political hyperbole, another overstatement of the kind that is tossed around the Capitol with empty ease. But in this moment, it felt true of Hoyer and the Members and visitors in the galleries, which included Giffords’ mother, Gloria Giffords, and the Congresswoman’s husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), an emotional man known for his public weeping, was joined in tears by others as he wielded the gavel in one hand and a tissue in the other. For a few fleeting moments, last year’s partisan warfare never happened. Virtually everyone wanted to kiss Giffords as she made her way through the chamber, to the well, and onto the dais to hand-deliver her resignation letter to Boehner. Everyone felt connected to her.
A key part of that connection is the fear every Member must feel: It could have been me.
They’re all vulnerable, and despite enhanced awareness and security, they are exposed, especially in an election year.
Violence against public officials is nothing new. Four U.S. presidents have been assassinated, and many other assailants have tried.
But presidents have the benefit of the Secret Service. Protecting 535 Members, five Delegates and one Resident Commissioner and their staffs who hail from every corner of the country is another matter. In their districts, it’s a logistical nightmare.
The House was designed to be the closest federal legislative body to the people, and erecting a fortress around a Representative strikes against the very purpose of having them.
Members, at least theoretically, want to be close to their constituents, shake their hands, help them navigate complicated problems. But that intimacy comes with a risk, one vividly demonstrated when Giffords was shot at point-blank range while greeting people in a shopping center in Tucson’s foothills.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.