Securing the grounds on Capitol Hill is a fine line between keeping "the People’s House" accessible and keeping it safe. That fine line will move again next week when the Capitol Police increase screening protocols for congressional staff.
Starting on Feb. 22, metal detectors and X-Ray machines will greet employees coming through some of the 100 points of entry in the underground parking garages that serve the Longworth, Cannon and Ford House office buildings. That could mean lines and slower entries for many staff members.
House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul D. Irving told Roll Call he expects frustrations but said police have an obligation to address security vulnerabilities.
“Whatever decision I make whether it’s to lock things down or not lock things down or secure things or not secure things, I always got somebody on one side or the other that’s not happy,” Irving said.
Committee members who oversee Capitol Police said setting proper security parameters should be top priority.
“I respect the argument that inconveniences will be likely incurred,” said Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., chairman of the Subcommittee on Legislative Branch, which oversees Capitol Police. “But there is no inconvenience that I suspect that should trump the safety and security of those that are visiting or working here on Capitol Hill.”
Some staffers argue they got their jobs because members trust them — and that should be enough when it comes to screenings.
But to get a congressional identification badge, staffers and interns are not required to undergo a background check. Each member of Congress may institute varying protocols for their staff in addition to what is required by the chief administrative officers during the application process.
A survey conducted by Roll Call after attacks in Paris and California last year found that nine out of 10 staffers feel safe working on Capitol Hill, before additional measures were put in place this year. About half the Republican staff members and 42 percent of Democratic staffers said they were willing to welcome increased security, even if it made it harder to get around.
Irving said he was aware that changes to day-to-day operations, and especially delays, can frustrate those who have to work there.
Renewed attention on the House office buildings’ vulnerability came to light nearly two years ago when, twice over the course of four days, staffers were caught bringing firearms into the buildings.
“The fact that we’ve had a few cases recently has brought it to the forefront again, but we’re aware of it,” Irving told Roll Call last week.
As for the timing of installation, Irving points to a matter of logistics: Of the 100 entry points from garages, about a dozen are heavily used.
Determining which of those will be closed in an effort to streamline the screening process could result in a decrease in heavily used entrances, which could lead to long lines.
Capitol Police are requesting money for additional police officers in its fiscal 2017 budget proposal. Some security checkpoints inside the building will be relocated to the newly-installed posts, so the same equipment and staff may be used.
While Graves and other Republican members tout the more than $4 billion Legislative Branch budget as an example of holding the line on spending – House members haven’t given themselves a raise since 2010 – the Capitol Police budget has more than quadrupled since 2001, the year of the 9/11 attacks.
While members of the GOP rail against spending increase and a widening deficit, they have a different take when it comes to increasing the amount of money it takes to secure their workplace.
“It’s really about prioritizing spending,” Graves said. “It’s not about just blindly across the board cuts.”
Leaders on the Committee on House Administration, which also oversees Capitol Police operations, pledged to review and update safety protocols to assure the proper solutions are in place, Chairman Candice S. Miller R-Mich., and Ranking Member Robert A. Brady, D-Pa., said in a joint statement.
“We want to make certain the appropriate House security measures are in place,” the statement read. “We all know that with any security updates adjustments must be made to accommodate those changes.”
A spokesman for Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D- Fla., the ranking member on the Subcommittee on Legislative Branch, said it’s too soon to judge what additional wait times will mean for staff but that the congresswoman would also evaluate changes as they are implemented.
Rep. Richard Nugent, R-Fla., a former sheriff who also sits on the House Administration Committee, commended the effort.
"The safety perimeter of any environment is only as strong as its weakest link," Nugent said in a statement.
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