Appropriators Concerned About Hill’s ‘Fortress’ Look

Posted April 28, 2004 at 6:38pm

House Appropriators asserted Wednesday that numerous security measures have created a “fortress” on the Capitol grounds and suggested reducing the presence of law-enforcement on the Hill, including the possibility of closing the Capitol grounds to vehicular traffic.

“We are concerned about the fortress view which people may be coming to have of the U.S. Capitol,” said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch.

The panel’s ranking member, Rep. Jim Moran (R-Va.), suggested the Capitol now resembles a “walled-in military camp under siege.”

“We don’t want to be separated from our constituents,” Moran said during the panel’s hearing on the Capitol Police Department’s fiscal 2005 funding request.

Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer defended his agency, noting the Capitol’s current appearance — including large fences bordering sections of the East Front — are the result of construction on the 580,000-square-foot subterranean Capitol Visitor Center.

“It will be less fortress-like looking when the construction is done,” Gainer said. “The looks of the campus will improve.”

Gainer also asserted that high visibility of officers is an effective law-enforcement tool.

Among the recommendations made by lawmakers, Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) proposed closing the Capitol campus and surrounding streets — likely including Independence and Constitution avenues — to vehicular traffic.

“It seems to be we ought to have a better traffic flow,” Tiahrt said.

The creation of a “walking campus,” Tiahrt asserted, would also provide additional protection from potential vehicle-mounted explosives.

Both Gainer and House Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood acknowledged such plans have previously been considered. “That’s a vision all of us have had here,” Livingood said.

Gainer, who has met with D.C. Transportation Department officials, noted a major obstacle to such a plan would be the closure of streets that serve as major arteries for the city’s east- and west-bound traffic.

Capitol Police officials also discussed the use of so-called “proximity cards,” high-tech identification cards that could be distributed to Congressional staff and lawmakers for access to specific entrances.

Livingood said the cards, which could include such features as an electronic photo of the holder, will likely be tested in a pilot program during evening and weekend hours.

During the hearing, Moran also raised concerns over the law-enforcement agency’s extended jurisdiction, which includes the Capitol grounds as well as a multi-block area radiating from the Capitol.

Moran questioned the need for Capitol officers to patrol surrounding neighborhoods — which are included in the Metropolitan Police Department’s jurisdiction — and suggested an agreement between the law-enforcement agencies could come under scrutiny during a Members-only meeting with Gainer in coming weeks.

“That’s something we might want to review,” Moran said.

Capitol Police made nearly 1,500 arrests in 2003, which Gainer estimated included up to 150 arrests on the immediate Capitol grounds.

During the hearing, Gainer also reviewed his agency’s $265 million fiscal 2005 budget request, which now includes numerous reductions at the request of the Appropriations panel.

Capitol Police initially sought $291 million for the coming fiscal year, a 33 percent increase over fiscal 2004.

The agency cut its request for new sworn-officers to 135 from 213, and the number of new civilian employees from to 105 from 155, estimated at a savings of $4.2 million.

The police also dropped an $8.2 million request for new escape hoods, which are used in toxic or biological emergencies.

Appropriations member Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) also suggested cutting the department’s newly created mounted unit, which Gainer estimates will cost between $85,000 and $100,000 to maintain annually.

“The only way to kill a new program is to kill it right at the start,” Kirk said. Congress created the mounted unit in fiscal 2004.

After Kingston reminded Kirk that the Senate was the primary supporter of the mounted unit, Kirk suggested a gift for Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), the retiring chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee.

“We could give one of the horses to him to ride off into the sunset with,” Kirk said.

Gainer also announced the addition of the department’s new chief administrative officer, Anthony Stamilio, who begins May 2.