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.
Before the shooting, it was like any other strip mall. Afterward, the banality of the Casas Adobes Safeway parking lot was stripped down to a mix of police tape, media trucks and crime scene investigators.
Virtually every Member, whether they hailed from Hagatna, Guam, or Crown Heights, N.Y., could visualize ways their constituent events could go wrong. Members almost immediately began working to shore up security where they could.
This all came at a time of heightened concern about Congressional spending. Barely a month after the shooting, the fervor to cut budgets prompted new House Administration Chairman Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) to warn his colleagues in a letter that some cost-saving proposals would “force Capitol Police to face today’s ever-growing security threats with significantly fewer resources and officers.”
Those receiving threats span the political spectrum. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has received more than his share over the past few years. Most recently, the FBI arrested a Tennessee man in October for threatening Cantor and his family.
On Oct. 25, a California man pleaded guilty for death threats he made over the summer against Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).
Also in October, Rep. Bobby Schilling (R-Ill.) was told to be wary after emails came to light that offered cash to anyone willing to assassinate him.
So Members have attempted to balance the need to be secure with the austerity of the times, some of them getting creative in the process.
In August, Giffords’ office asked the Federal Election Commission whether she could use some of her campaign funds to pay for security upgrades at her home. The agency granted the permission, as it had for similar requests earlier.
But even the Capitol can be a target, and that truth, coupled with Giffords’ poignant reminder of the stakes, crystallizes for every Member of Congress and his or her staff that the threat is real and persisting.
This is what was important about Giffords’ return, and exit, from public life.
Ever since she was felled last year, she provided a truly iconic example of how a public official faces the fear.
The empty chair reserved for Giffords during last year’s State of the Union speech was filled, against long odds, by the Congresswoman herself Tuesday night.
That Giffords was able to personally hand her resignation letter to Boehner only highlighted how extraordinary the past year has been.
One year ago, she was in Houston, taking the first steps of a long rehabilitation that will be the focus of her life after Congress.
She returned to Capitol Hill in August, voting on the debt ceiling deal, providing a rare positive note to a summer of fierce partisan debate.
She gingerly returned to public events. She sat for an interview on ABC News with Diane Sawyer in November. She served Thanksgiving dinner to the troops at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson.
And after announcing her resignation on Sunday, she moved to finish what she could not last year. On Monday, she met with constituents in Tucson to close the loop on the “Congress on Your Corner” event interrupted by the gunfire.
She attended Tuesday’s State of the Union address. She voted on Wednesday for the last time, on a somewhat wonky bill she sponsored to reclassify ultra-light aircraft, an effort to crack down on cross-border drug smuggling. It passed 408-0. Then she resigned, surrounded by the good will of others.
Such actions might not cease future threats against her or her colleagues, or change the most basic problems that the country faces. But they provide an example.