If the goal of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and California was to inspire fear in the Western world, it hasn’t shaken those who work in the greatest seat of power. The CQ Roll Call Capitol Insiders Survey this month found that nine out of 10 congressional staffers feel safe in the Capitol.
There was no significant difference between the parties. Among Democrats, 92 percent felt safe; among Republicans, it was 88 percent.
The survey, taken online from Dec. 8 through Dec. 11, drew responses from 318 aides, 160 of whom said they were Republicans and 128 Democrats. Seven said they were independents and the rest didn't specify a party.
It’s a testament to the work of the U.S. Capitol Police, says Rory Cooper, a former spokesman for then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. “No similar force is as harshly tested with world leaders, members of Congress and thousands of tourists interacting daily in the people's house, and they rise to every occasion,” he says.
Capitol Police Chief Kim C. Dine said the survey responses were gratifying, but he added that staffers should remain vigilant. "We want people to feel safe but also to be our partners, our eyes and ears," he said.
The confidence is striking, considering that it’s easier to get into the Capitol than it is to board a commercial airliner in the United States.
At the Capitol, visitors must go through a metal detector. But there are no full-body screening machines, swabs of hands for explosives, requirements to remove shoes or limits on the amount of liquid with which one can enter.
Identical screening is in place at the House and Senate office buildings and aides said they felt just as safe there. Nearly three in four aides said they also felt safe walking the Capitol grounds even though there is no screening at all there.
After the attack on Paris in November by terrorists apparently affiliated with the Islamic State terrorist group, the Capitol Police Board, which oversees the force, said the police had stepped up patrols around the Capitol. The board apologized for the inconvenience, but staff didn’t notice much of one.
It was a far cry from the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, in which the Capitol was evacuated, roads were closed and staff members were subjected to more rigorous security checks as they moved about.
In her 2010 book, "One Nation Under Siege: Congress, Terrorism, and the Fate of American Democracy," University of West Florida government professor Jocelyn Evans describes a disorganized response in which emergency plans were not in place and staff didn’t know whether to turn to their employers, the Sergeant at Arms or the Capitol Police for guidance.
“It was scary and chaotic,” says Brendan Daly, who took a job as a spokesman for then-House Democratic Whip Nancy Pelosi shortly after the attacks.
Better security and better planning ensued and the Capitol is not as open a place as it once was, says Holly Fechner, a lobbyist for Covington & Burling who is a former aide to the late Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
“People today would find it incredible how free people were to move around the Capitol complex,” she says. “They could drive up their cars and park right in the Capitol parking lot to talk to members during the evening votes. They could walk around the Capitol, to the reception rooms right off the floor.”
But she says the response was actually more intense a month later, when a letter laced with anthrax was delivered to then-Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. The Hart Senate Office Building was closed for three months, forcing Senate staffers to work from mailing and conference rooms.
Still, the stepped-up Capitol security stopped short of the kind of protocols that make it difficult to visit the White House. For instance, it’s hard to see how today’s security methods could stop a deranged gunman like Russell Weston Jr., who entered the Capitol at an East Front doorway in 1998 and shot and killed two Capitol Police officers.
Given all that, the confidence on Capitol Hill is remarkable. But Jim Manley, the former spokesman for Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, says it may be as much about staffers’ aversion to working in a fortress. “Most people, over beers, will admit they are still freaked out” whenever the Capitol is evacuated because an airplane has strayed off course nearby, he says.
But they’d be loath to work behind bars. “It is the people’s body, after all,” he says and most staffers believe “any diminution of access for an average citizen is not acceptable.”
That’s not to say the recent terrorist attacks haven’t had any effect. More than four in 10 respondents to CQ Roll Call’s survey predicted the United States would deploy ground troops to fight the Islamic State in 2016, surely a much higher figure than would have said so before the attacks.